Monday, May 30, 2022

TtD supplement #216 : eight questions for Margo LaPierre

Margo LaPierre is a Canadian editor and author of Washing Off the Raccoon Eyes (Guernica Editions, 2017). She is newsletter editor of Arc Poetry Magazine, membership chair of Editors Ottawa-Gatineau, and member of poetry collective VII. She won the 2020 subTerrain Lush Triumphant Award for Fiction. Her work has been published in the /temz/ Review, Room Magazine, Arc Poetry Magazine, filling Station, CAROUSEL, PRISM International, carte blanche and others. Find her on Twitter @margolapierre.

Her poems “The World’s Most Beautiful Desert” and “Subdued, [a forecast]” appear in the thirty-third issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “The World’s Most Beautiful Desert” and “Subdued, [a forecast].”

A: “The World’s Most Beautiful Desert” started out as a section of a creative non-fiction piece. I was trying out bibliomancy, which is a practice of seeking guidance or predicting the future by randomly picking a passage from a book. I based this poem on a quote from Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space in which Bachelard discusses Philip Diolé’s book Le plus beau desert du monde (the title of my poem) in the context of carrying vast spaces within us, how a deep-sea diver walking across the desert transplants the sea through force of the imagination. I like the idea that we are atlases of all the proprioceptive maps our bodies have recorded in our lifetimes. The poem visits the idea of cross-genre pollination. Bonus “trivia”: all the aquatic life in it can be found in the West Edmonton Mall’s aquarium, where I have yet to visit.    

“Subdued, [a forecast]” was inspired by and structured according to your poem “Subtitled, [a primer]” from Life Sentence, which especially drew me in with its rhythm. The whole book did.  It’s a deeply fluid, liquid collection. Personal and intimate without sounding confessional. I have an affinity for rhetorical questions in poetry, I guess I use them a lot. “Subdued” is one of several medication poems in my collection-in-progress. This poem addresses a specific part in my mood disorder cycle (my own rhythm) — a fallow or gathering stage where I sleep more and become more receptive/reactive. I can edit and read but I can’t really write. I stay away from social media because I have nothing to say and get a fear/block about perceived publicly. After that lifts, maybe after months or weeks, it lifts into lightness and flow and inventiveness. A trick I’ve found works for me re: writing poetry during the low time is to borrow forms from poets I admire and write pastiche poems.

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

A: I’m at the stage of wrapping up a poetry manuscript and sending it out on submission, so these two poems are part and parcel with my other current work, most of which take up themes of disorder and/or community. I play around a lot with various forms throughout the collection but one thing that comes through in these two poems and the manuscript as a whole is the presence of other poets and writers. I’ve been in conversation/communion with other writers through the poems. It’s all porous, heavily influenced by what I’ve been reading and the poets I’ve met.

Q: Has your composition process shifted since the publication of your full-length debut? Do you approach or consider your poems any differently since having put together a first manuscript?

A: Definitely! My first book took several years to compile, as is the case for many first-time poets. Any of the poems I considered “good enough” to go in that collection, written between the time I was eighteen to twenty-five, went into Washing Off the Raccoon Eyes. With my current manuscript, I had a project idea in mind, and receiving grants for this project when I was first starting to write it helped me to pursue the concept in earnest. So I’ve been writing poems with the book in mind, which is the opposite of what I’d done for my first collection. I still write poems outside of the project, and some of the “stray” poems find their way in, like one that was inspired by a WWE match with The Undertaker and his brother Kane. My husband is a wrestling fanatic and I told him to pick the fight most special to him and I’d watch it and do a bit of research and write about it. A big difference in terms of process as well: the second I finish a first draft of the poems, they go into the collection manuscript. Any editing happens as part of a larger whole. I was intent on playing around formally this time too, so there’s more experimentation.

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: Oh, yes, goodness, many! Probably more than I should list off here. I recently created a series of centos, four of them, each line taken from a poem — so not a single word is my own, just the composition itself. I change capitalization in a few cases, but I don’t touch the punctuation, and the line breaks are the original authors’ own. I borrowed lines from over fifty poets. The longest cento links a line each from 49 poems.

I’ve also been working in pastiche and glosa, and have written poems “in dialogue” with work by Sina Queyras, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Chen Chen, Lisa Robertson, Hoa Nguyen, and yourself, in “Subdued.” And I do have an ekphrastic poem inspired by Canadian visual artist Eliza Griffiths’ painting “Intuition: Oral Roberts pose,” 2003, oil on canvas.

This project I’m working on is kind of a kaleidoscope.

Q: I’m curious about your work in pastiche, ekphrastic and glosa, as well as your engagement in dialogue with works by other writers. What do you see your work in such forms, and such dialogues, accomplishing that might not be possible otherwise?

A: Hm, this is a really good question. I guess it begs another question: What am I hoping to accomplish in my poems anyway — and how are these forms a better way of doing that? The poems in this collection, taken as a whole, are intended to invite readers inside of psychosis, neurodivergence, and traumas and violences associated with womanhood as I’ve experienced it, and to celebrate strength and perception. I want to create something accessible for readers that still manages to tilt perception. Bringing in other voices is part of this prismatic project. The poetry community has kept me alive and connected throughout the pandemic. Community is treasure. Glosa, pastiche, and cento make community visible on the page —inextricable from the poetry, just like poetry has become inextricable from my life. I hope that the poems that engage with others’ work nudge readers towards seeking out those poets. And ekphrasis is pure fun and flavour, and pulls strong feelings out of me in the generation of the work the way my favourite shows, movies, artworks, and books do. In ekphrasis I respond to Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown Sicily episode, Euphoria’s Rue Bennett. Mental illness can be isolating. I’ve been looking toward other poets and creators, even fictional characters, who have artfully expressed their own experiences.

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

A: When I wrote the poems in my debut collection. I liked reading poems but hadn’t learned their mechanisms. If the left poetic muscle is intuition, then the right one is intention, and I grew into a practice that is now more intentional.

Attending workshops, like Stuart Ross’s workshops and the Tree Reading Series’ workshops, and now attending UBC for a Creative Writing MFA, in which I’ve maxed out the number of poetry credits I’m allowed to take, have been instrumental in my development, as has been collaboration with my Ottawa poetry crew, the collective VII, composed of Chris Johnson, nina jane drystek, Conyer Clayton, Ellen Chang-Richardson, Helen Robertson, Manahil Bandukwala, and myself.

I’m now headed into fiction, writing a collection of short stories inspired by beloved articles of clothing I’ve owned, and a novel of sex, work, madness, and found family. Who knows what poetry will look like for me as I take my foot off the gas (a metaphor, only — I do not drive). Ahoy collabs!

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: The pandemic would’ve beer far lonelier if it weren’t for VII.

Happiness and a sense of connection might not have been possible were it not for these amazing humans. The pandemic tested my emotional and mental stamina in several ways and VII may have been what’s actually kept me afloat. Our collective’s “birthday” is March 21, 2020. For all the bad of the pandemic, it also brought us friendship. We talk through our group chat every single day, mostly about our lives in general, but also swapping tips and bits of literary knowledge and fluff, helping publicize each others’ events, peer-reading/editing each others’ manuscripts (Manahil, Conyer and Ellen all have full-length books coming out in 2022 and beyond!), and sharing resources, memes, and an excessive amount of raccoon digital paraphernalia.  

We all have different tendencies re: white space, punctuation, capitalization, form and hashing these out together and making a case for one over the other on our collaborative poems has opened me up to more possibilities for writing and revision in my own work. VII’s second chapbook, Holy Disorder, is forthcoming from Gap Riot Press later this year, and we edited that à sept in a Google Doc over Zoom.

Collaboration can be an event, too! A few months ago, Stuart Ross was down in Ottawa visiting from Cobourg, and he and Conyer and I wrote three poems, collaboratively and simultaneously, using a different approach for each one. I’ve discovered how easy and fun it can be, and it helps to remind me that writing poetry in general can, sometimes, be easy and fun.

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

A: I’m pretty much always reading five books at once: (1) a poetry book; (2) a novel; (3) non-fiction, often memoir; (4) a craft book; and (5) an audiobook on Kindle that might be any one of those genres. But in terms of what re-energizes my writing and what I return to, books of philosophy and psychology are my go-to. I majored in philosophy in my undergrad, which is when I wrote my first collection, and philosophy and poetry are two peas in this particular pod (“knocks skull”). For my current project, some of the books that helped percolate these poems are The Paradoxes of Delusion and Madness and Modernism: Insanity in the Light of Modern Art by Louis Sass, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain by Antonio Damasio, and The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard, all of them highlighted and dogeared.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

TtD supplement #215 : seven questions for Jérôme Melançon

Jérôme Melançon is grateful to be here. He writes and teaches and writes and lives in oskana kâ-asastêki / Regina, SK. These poems are perhaps part of that larger project. With above/ground he also published the bilingual Coup (2020) and the newly-released Tomorrow’s Going to Be Bright (2022). His most recent poetry collection is En d’sous d’la langue (Prise de parole, 2021). He is also the author of two books of poetry with Éditions des Plaines, De perdre tes pas (2011) and Quelques pas quelque part (2016), as well as one book of philosophy, La politique dans l’adversité (Metispresses, 2018) and a bunch of stuff in journals and books nobody reads. He’s on Twitter and Instagram at @lethejerome and sometimes there’s poetry happening on the latter. He looks forward to hearing from you.

His poems “On driving to the airport with my father” and “On driving to a place my father once called home with my father” appear in the thirty-third issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “On driving to the airport with my father” and “On driving to a place my father once called home with my father.”

A: When I go back to Ottawa I depend on my father for transportation. Or on public transit, but we all know just how well OC Transpo and the STO work. A few times I've gone back by myself, and spent time with him, much like we used to when I was a child. His radio station, the routes he favours. On road trips, the places where he likes to stop. I don't mind giving up decision-making in that way, and there's something comforting in being driven to these places. That’s the main feeling I wanted to convey in these two poems. But they carry different weights. One is an early morning scene, and is focused on departure – my father driving me to the airport, I can't recall after what occasion now –, and so on change, transition, an epochal shift maybe. The other, about home, has me in the back seat, a cousin of my father’s in the passenger seat in front of me, on that long stretch of Canadian Shield leading up to Mattawa from Ottawa. I didn’t know this cousin, I barely even knew of him. I’ve spent a lot of time in that seat, although in other vehicles, at a diagonal from my father, on that same road going up to Témiscamingue. But there's a sense of deep sadness and loss I wanted to immobilize, not for myself. No, a sense of loss, but for my father, given that we were driving to attend his sister's funeral.

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

A: They're quite akin in tone and theme to a series of poems I'll be publishing as a chapbook with above/ground press, Tomorrow’s Going to Be Bright. These two poems are older, although I can’t remember writing them – it must have been quite some time ago, although the only trace I could find was in the file I created in the fall of 2020 when I typed them up. I’ve been reworking them over time, I can’t be sure now how much is left of what I must have written when I last flew out to Ottawa. I do remember that the mood is perhaps their most important aspect, what I tried to get across most clearly. And there’s quite a bit of reflection about family ties, about places I associate with family. Retrospectively all these poems appear as reflection on my own fatherhood, my own family, through my family of origin (and extended family in the chapbook). They deal with the presence of the past, its reappearance – and the chapbook is built around ten years of abandoned poems in English, my going through my notebooks, picking out the best lines and images and writing new poems to salvage them through a new whole. I’ve done something similar for another project in French where I translated and transformed a whole series of poems about the Prairies originally written in English over the same period. I’ve run out of steam on that project, so I’m letting it sit in a binder for now.

In the attempt to grasp a collapsing of past and present at easily identifiable, eventful moments where distancing and dissociation are understandable reactions to my grief and that of others, these two poems are entirely different from what I’m working on at the moment. I think the whole exercise, publishing these two, and putting the chapbook together, helped me put many things to rest, ideas I knew I’d have to get back to, a form I wanted to send out into the world. I could then move on to taking myself seriously as an English-speaking poet, trust myself to really attempt something different and new, unlike anything else I had written. There's a thread to my new work, but only in the sense that a broken necklace dangling and spreading stones or whatever has a thread. There's little form and there's little freedom. It's guided by my response to such enormous works, tied to convictions, in no way autobiographical. So – again quite retrospectively – these two poems mark the beginning of the last part of a cycle in my writing.

Q: Have you noticed a difference in how you approach your work since starting to put together chapbook-length manuscripts? Are you someone who composes poems, or groupings of poems? And is there a difference?

A: As far as I know, chapbooks aren’t very common in French-language poetry circles. There are also far fewer poetry journals. There are zines, but for the most part poetry is a book affair. I have a thing for the Book. So I began by writing books. My first two published collections were in fact written as one longer manuscript, which I split into two separate, mirror image entities. Since then most of my more traditional writing has worked the same: I write a few poems, and the stronger ones end up creating a path for more poems, an approach to themes and topics imposes itself, and I fall in that direction. For En d’sous d’la langue I had about eight or nine solid poems that ended up defining a relatively narrow field of possibilities. This way I can go quite far in one direction, really explore an idea.

I discovered chapbooks quite late in the game, even though I’ve been reading poetry in English regularly since I've been out West. And it didn’t occur to me to write or compose a chapbook. I only came up with the idea of my first chapbook, Coup, once I got negative feedback on a collection. There just wasn’t enough material for a full collection, but I did want to put it out there because I liked the form of the poems so much, so I whittled the book down and rewrote quite a bit, and sent it off. After that, messing around with responses to other people’s poems, I wrote one poem, then another, and before long I thought I might have enough for a chapbook... except that once I put the work together I was already halfway to a book, so I kept going. Thinking about a chapbook early on made it possible for me to goof around and end up with something serious, and seriously different, whereas I wouldn't have bothered to look down this way for one poem or for a whole book. Now I think that’s just one long poem anyway, I may have decided on the title speechletting, we’ll see if I stick to that.

I still write one-off poems, but it’s rare that I don't have a sense of connection between the poems. So it’s difficult for me to pick some to send by themselves to be published in reviews because I feel many only really work well as part of a whole. That's something I’ve tried to work on, to give individual poems their autonomy. Tomorrow... is like that. Each poem very much has its own life. So that’s new, and again it’s aiming for a chapbook that allowed me to try something out without worrying so much about the overall effect.

Q: I remember having conversations with Louis Patrick Leroux in the early 1990s, when he mentioned that French-language writing in Canada had fewer possibilities for journal publication, suggesting that they weren’t leaning their poems into journal-publishable lengths; how poets in French Canada (at least in his awareness) were publishing younger, and full collections comprised as long poems, whereas their English-language contemporaries were publishing collections of shorter poems after working a few years through the system of literary journals. Given you work in and through both languages, do you see a shift in approach between your English and French writing? How does one language impact upon the other?

A: That’s still very much the case! The balance is easy to feel: with Estuaire and Exit being the only two major journals dedicated to poetry and only a handful of other journals publishing poetry alongside other genres, the proliferation of small presses and medium-size publishers that put out full collections definitely occupy the centre of the poetry scene in Québec. Outside Quebec, it’s even harder to publish individual poems. À ciel ouvert [https://acielouvert.ca/] out West and Ancrages [https://ancrages.ca/] in Acadie both publish poetry, but even the very small French-language presses like Éditions de la Nouvelle plume in Saskatchewan will publish a book of poetry now and then, and we have Éditions du Blé, Éditions Perce-Neige, and of course Prise de Parole, which have very strong and long-standing poetry collections. There might be more venues – I published my first poems in Ottawa U’s student literary journal, Textures – but I haven’t made that inventory. So it’s expected that emerging poets – and often young poets – will publish a full collection before anyone even hears about them at all as poets. I published my first collection before I ever did a poetry reading! And that first reading was with Dany Laferrière!

Also there isn’t the prize institution. That’s how I first began writing in English: I submitted to all these prizes. The upshot is that I got subscriptions to so. many. journals. The downside is that I got quite discouraged, of course, because there, and shortly after, in submitting individual poems, I wasn’t aiming for venues based on style – I had no grasp of the scene at all. The idea of selling a poem, of poetry markets, or even getting paid for a publication is still odd to me. And there are no blurbs on books in French. All that means that writing is a lot more individualistic, until you get it out there. Instead, networks form around live events and around specific publishers, that’s where you get recognition as part of something greater.

I do want to get to your actual questions though, they’re very good, only they’re very difficult to answer. So maybe I’ll just offer a few thoughts without trying to be linear. This is such a huge question, I’ll probably go on for a bit.

I've had to allow myself the right to write in English. There’s enormous pressure to speak French, to breathe French, to be French all the time, to address people in French wherever you go. It’s creating legitimacy for French; it’s claiming the territory as bilingual here or as French in Québec. This linguistic nationalism is a form of resistance against the omnipresence of the English language, but it will allow for separation, resentment, and hatred, or simply disappointment when people who could speak French speak English instead. Thankfully there are people who have always rejected this – Rose Després is a great example – and it’s less of an issue now than it used to be, at least outside Québec. Writing in a second language is also extremely difficult, as anyone who’s tried has experienced firsthand. Because I had already published a book, when I first decided to try writing in English I went ahead and submitted right away, which simply did not work. What I’ve realized since then is that I needed to grow as an English-language poet first, just as I had written so many poems in French, for some time, before anything good came out of it. But there are still things I can’t do, like do anything with accentuation in English – I don’t quite get it, even now.

I’ve brought a lot of elements of French poetry to my writing in English – the French sonnet form, my love for the alexandrine, but also less formally the tone found in Québécois poetry over the last 15 years or so, an irreverent, slang-y, rough diction. And likewise my first two books were full of devices I borrowed from Ginsburg, Kerouac, and Cummings, especially as far as rhythm and placement on the page go. I suppose I have more tools for being familiar with so many more traditions of writing. If I were a more deliberate writer I could do a lot with that.

I think in both languages, so that’s the main reason why I end up writing in one language or the other – unless I’m deliberately continuing on a project I’ve already set out to complete in one language. I like to mess around with bilingual writing, which led to my chapbook Coup, some visual poetry I'm playing with at the moment, French words I’m slipping into my English writing. There’s a kind of easy code-switching in my everyday life I’d like to be able to bring into my writing, and for that I’d need to stop caring whether readers understand the whole poem. Then again, Coup did get published!

In spite of that, I think there are things I can say better in one language or in another. My writing in English tends to be introspective, it’s taken me toward reflections on my family, things I haven’t dared to approach in French, things that are maybe too close to me.

And there’s a question of who I’m writing for. I’ve made my way into English-language poetry networks since the pandemic began, it’s been really wonderful, and it’s allowed me to say new things because I got a sense of who might be reading me. The same goes for becoming acquainted with the Francophone arts scene outside Québec. That's probably where my approach to writing changes the most. I still write for myself, but I also have a general understanding of my potential public.

Q: Given the traditions are so different in each language and culture, how do you see the two sides of your writing co-existing? Talking to Christine McNair recently about American poet Rosmarie Waldrop, I’ve had a far better sense of how deeply Waldrop’s syntax through her English-language poetry is rooted in the diction of her first language, German. Is there crossover between the two sides, or does each side of your language-thinking remain in its own individual camp?

A: I hope my writing in both languages brings together the traditions I draw from. There are proximities: I discovered bpNichol only recently, but I’ve been reading Oulipo work since I first became interested in poetry. The idea of playing seriously and writing expansively is very dear to me; this is something they share, along with the tendency to alternate between traditional and long poems. Likewise I’ve always drawn from revolutionary texts, which themselves often have similar points of reference beyond the language they’re written in. But then again, there are important differences between these parallel traditions and languages.  

I don't know much about Waldrop, other than what I just read: a couple of poems from Split Infinities I found online, and your own 20 question interview. Looking at it, there’s a personal language, it’s striking. Perhaps it has to do with working with a language we weren’t born into. I’d like to look further into poets who wrote in an additional language. I was looking at Spanish-speaking American poets for a while, I still have a stack of photocopies somewhere and a few books, I keep meaning to go back to that project. The idea originally was to look into bilingual writing, but your questions are pushing me to think more about the tension between the languages, and whether as someone who learned a second language as a teenager I can ever find myself within English, rather than approach it through French. I don’t think my writing in English goes through French; it certainly comes directly into English, and I rarely have a word in French for which I seek an equivalent. Maybe my writing settles into one language based on the words that impose themselves upon me, the words that come to me. I usually begin a poem with a line, or a few words that are pulling at each other. My notebooks and note apps are full of lines and sentences or groups of words like that. I just have to follow them, the language is already given to me in a way. If I’m ever read with any closeness by bilingual readers, maybe they’ll be able to answer your question better than I can. But if my prepositions are ever odd, that's just me not mastering this language.

I live in both languages, I go to work in both languages, and I’m constantly code-switching even with certain people around me. And I write, and talk, so much, in both languages, that I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about how I do it. I can’t even really think of English and French as only two languages. Raymond Queneau, the French novelist and poet, talks about how written and spoken French are already two different languages. It’s not just that no one would ever speak like people write; it’s that there is a translation of spoken French into written French that people need to learn to do. There’s learning to read and write words and sentences, which school teaches, and then there’s learning written French, which school does more or less well, and mostly for reading knowledge than for writing knowledge. The French I used when I wrote my latest book is not the French I used for the two earlier books of poetry, nor the one I use when I speak to my children, nor the one I use in the classroom, nor the one I use when taking meeting notes, nor the one I use when I write philosophy, nor the one I use when I write op-eds or columns, nor the one I use when I write more sociological work... It’s tone, it’s diction, it’s syntax, it’s vocabulary, it’s grammar... when that much changes, do you even have the same language?

Q: Have you explored much in the way of writings by poets who compose through multiple languages, especially within the same texts? I’m thinking of contemporaries such as Nathanaël, Erín Moure or Oana Avasilichioaei. As you are writing, how do you decide which language best suits your thinking at that particular moment?

A: I’m aware of their work, yes, but I must confess I haven’t looked closely at it. I’ve read some of their essays and translations, and the odd poem. Enough to place them on a list for me to obsess over in the near future. And I’ve been paying close attention to Klara Du Plessis, who is doing some of the most enthralling work I’m aware of at the moment. Plurilingual composition is something I’m keenly aware of, yes, something I’ve sought out too.

When I was working through the project that became Coup I was invited to do a reading at an event during a literature conference in Saint John, so I put together a paper too, looking at bilingual writing as a kind of formal or constrained writing. I’m not sure I still agree with the basic idea, but the exploration was a great thing for me. That paper included a look at Rose Després’ Vraisemblable, one of my favourite books of poetry. It’s so angry, it sets fire somewhere in me every time I read it. It’s one of the few books I go back to regularly. She slips English in here and there, repeating the rhythm of code-switching among Francophones outside Quebec, who can safely assume that everyone around them also speaks English.

The main piece for that paper is Patrice Desbiens’ L’homme invisible/The invisible man, which is a classic of Franco-Ontarian writing. It’s made up of prose poems in two versions, French and English, on opposite pages; for the most part there’s a rather strict translation, but here and there the two languages say different things. We hide in languages at times, we let things come out only in one or say things only to those who are part of the same linguistic group, hide things from the others. We don’t live quite in the same way in each language. At least that’s what Desbiens suggests; I can’t say that’s how the two languages work for me.

Much of the time I don’t choose the language I write in. It depends on whether I begin with words, a line, a rhythm that strikes me – in that case the language is already decided upon – or with feeling, an idea, a scene. Because I think in terms of projects I often end up writing in the language of the project the idea would best fit into. As I mentioned there’s a whole series of poems I wrote in English ten years ago that I rewrote in French before the pandemic, because they needed to be transformed and never really worked, but also so that they fit with a newer project that only made sense for a French-reading public. For the most part it’s a question of publics then, of whom I’m speaking to, but sometimes it has to do with the possibilities one language affords. I’m not a natural at languages, so I’m really envious of people who have either the resolve or a facility with languages. The ideal poem would be a movement across languages and forms.

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

A: Rose Després and Phyllis Webb are two poets whose work constantly feeds me anger and indignation as well as love and hope. Until recently – I picked up Peacock Blue for a project I might start working on – I only owned one of their books, and even that’s been enough to gather strength and bring me focus. Dionne Brand is another poet whose work is inexhaustible – inépuisable in French, a well from which I’m never done drawing. Every sentence is an occasion to feel more deeply and add layers to my experiences. What all three have in common is their capacity to help me get into a very active meditative state, where emotions are clear and where I’m full of care for others, either around me or at the greatest distance.

The one writer I go back to the most, the one writer I’ll read over and over or just pick up, knowing I won’t be disappointed, is Raymond Queneau. I get a different kind of energy from his writing: there’s so much work, you can’t necessarily see it right there, which makes it magical, but the thought, the planning, the development, the references to history and literature, the inventivity in the forms, the wordplay, all this work is so expansive. And often it ends on a light note, as if the ending is going to be a disappointment anyway, the ultimate constraint, the one constraint that can’t be broken and that can’t be made up or taken up, and so he might as well just have fun. I’ve taken up some of the forms he’s used, like the elementary morality which shows up alongside (French) sonnets in my first two books. Reading him makes me want to write, and lets me think I can do it. It was reading him, and much of Oulipo, that made me believe it at first, and that often carries me when I just can’t seem to get words in any kind of decent order. I get to decide the order, and I get to decide how I decide on the order. It’s fun.

Monday, May 9, 2022

TtD supplement #214 : seven questions for Benjamin Niespodziany

Benjamin Niespodziany’s work has appeared in Fence, Fairy Tale Review, Sporklet, Maudlin House, and others. Along with being featured in the Wigleaf Top 50, his writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and Best Microfiction. His debut chapbook, The Northerners, was released at the end of 2021 through above/ground press.

His poems “Froth and Whip,” “The The” and “Bob Heman” appear in the thirty-third issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “Froth and Whip,” “The The” and “Bob Heman.”

A: Both “Froth and Whip” and “The The” are prose poems that focus on the line, the visual, the rhythm. Less about narrative and sense and more about sound and experience. “The The”, in particular, is inspired by the writing of Eric Baus, whose collection The Tranquilized Tongue features poems where every sentence begins with “The”.

“Bob Heman” (after Bob Heman) pays tribute to one of the unsung greats of prose poetry. If you Google “Bob Heman Poetry”, the first search result will be a publication where he showcases 17 poems, all of which are called INFORMATION. It inspired me to write 17 poems called Bob Heman. This is one of them.

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

A: These poems are more nonsensical and abstract than what I’m currently writing. I’m working on two manuscripts that deal with my childhood as well as some domestic fictions, and while the poems within are still absurd and surreal, they’re a bit more grounded in narrative. These poems (which were written in early 2021) are more hallucinatory and atmospheric and free-flowing. More collage and less plot.

Q: How complicated is it working on two manuscripts simultaneously?

A: I prefer it! If I hit a speed bump or a road block, it allows me to step away from one while still being able to work on my writing. I have numerous, numerous manuscripts at various stages in their respective journeys, but these two in particular that I mentioned above are about 95% done.

Q: How did you get to the point that you’re working multiple manuscripts simultaneously? And, further to that, do you then see your work as a large, singular project, or a series of related or interrelated threads?

A: BOTH! One large project and many connected threads. I tend to freewrite then edit then later compartmentalize. For example, I have a manuscript of poems that all take place in a library (where I work), I have a manuscript that all deal with faith (and questions of faith, and God turning into a bog witch, etc.), I have a manuscript where every poem is contained within one neighborhood block. I really try to find a through-line when it comes to forming a manuscript (instead of a collection of 'best of' or favorites) or else I won't know where to begin.

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

A: The hundreds of books that line my shelves and cover my ottoman constantly circle through my brain.

For the lyric/rhythmic image-based poems featured here, I was drawn to Eric Baus, Bob Heman, Donna Stonecipher (her collection The Cosmopolitan is a favorite). Another to mention is C. Dylan Bassett, whose collection The Invention of Monsters really opened my world and shattered my glass ceiling in regards to what I might be capable of within a prose poem. Pitched as ‘plays for the theater’, these wild prose poems were also sold as a deck of playing cards, with every ‘scene’ appearing on an individual card. I used to keep the cards in my backpack for years, until airport security had to inspect the deck because the thick plastic casing triggered an alarm. They let me have the cards back, but told me to not fly with them again. Mystical, magical poems.

Q: Much of what I’ve seen of your work focuses on the form of the prose poem. How did you land on the prose poem? What do you feel the form allows or provides that might not be possible otherwise?

A: I’ve always loved short stories and microfictions, and discovering the prose poem (first through Richard Brautigan, and then Mathias Svalina) sent me down a rabbit hole of new literature and form. I love how the prose poem can blur the line between a coherent tale and a lyrical headspin. The prose poem allows me to be a storyteller without any set of rules. I don’t need an ending, or an arc, or a moral. The prose poem is a lawless box I love to call home.

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

A: Outside of the books previously mentioned, here are some that are always nearby:

Edward Mullany’s Figures for an Apocalypse. Full worlds packed into one/two sentence poems. Surreal and beautiful, and part of a trilogy that's great from start to finish.

Shivani Mehta’s Useful Information for the Soon-To-Be Beheaded. Some of the best prose poems I’ve ever read. Reshapes how I approach the blank page.

Matvei Yankelevich’s Boris by the Sea. One that always inspires me. The full version from Octopus Books, but also the handmade one-of-one version available digitally on Ugly Duckling Presse’s website.

Lastly! I want to mention Rikki Ducornet’s The Complete Butcher’s Tales. Folkloric myths, twisted fairytales, quick fables. They’re crystalline in their presentation.