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.