Tuesday, December 26, 2023

TtD supplement #255 : seven questions for Alana Solin

Alana Solin is a writer and collage artist from New Jersey. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Afternoon Visitor, TAGVVERK, Dusie, Annulet, Second Factory, Tyger Quarterly, and elsewhere. You can find more of her work at alanasol.in.

Her poems “WRACKS CONCLUSIVE,” “RED,” “SUM” and “CELADON” appear in the thirty-ninth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “WRACKS CONCLUSIVE,” “RED,” “SUM” and “CELADON.”

A: I wrote “WRACKS CONCLUSIVE” following sound mainly, but it cohered into a poem about feeling isolated from the past and unable to decipher the future. “CELADON” feels similar, a speaker glassed in and immobilized, watching other objects transform. “RED” I think is about shame. “SUM” is drawn from a number of different unfinished poems, and I think the edges show in it. “WRACKS CONCLUSIVE” and “CELADON” are more or less the same as they were when I first wrote them, while I’ve tried to write “RED” and “SUM” a number of ways.

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

A: Removing line breaks allowed me freedom from the emphases that short lines impose. I could rely on rhythm to create structure and not worry about structures outside of rhythm that would require its rearrangement. I think these poems are similar to my other poems in that they are all quite short. I admire long poems and hope to get there one day, but I haven’t figured out how to sustain anything for longer than a page. When I edit, I tend to add little and remove lots.

These poems are from a period of time last year when I felt unable to write anything but prose poems, something I hadn’t tried previously. Now, once again, I can’t get away from line breaks. Prose poems are harder to escape from because they are coiled and serpentine, but the escape feels more crucial; in my prose poems I always feel like I’m probing for a way out, while my more recent poems don’t feel so concerned with that process. Maybe line breaks are gimmicks because they lead the reader so specifically, but maybe I need gimmicks or at least want them. Maybe line breaks help a poem imitate speech, and maybe I like to give that guidance. Or prose poems started to feel shuttered, and fumbling for exits started to get tiring.

Q: Do you really see such a stark difference between the prose poem and utilizing the line break? What first brought you to the prose poem?

A: I think Elizabeth Willis’s collection Meteoric Flowers led me to prose poems. I’ve seen and written them before, but that book was a turning point for me. I was inspired by the jumps in her poems, the logic she engineers, and the stateliness of the form. By stateliness I guess I mean they felt so put-together and whole. I’ve only been writing poems with enjambment lately; that’s just how they’ve come.

Q: How do poems usually begin for you? Are your poems self-contained pieces that might eventually cluster into groups, or are you deliberately attempting something more interconnected?

A: Pretty often, I construct my poems from bits cut from my other poems. If I like a line but it doesn’t work where it is, I’ll remove it and try to write a poem around it. I take a lot of notes in a lot of TextEdit documents, so I’ll go back through years of those, trying to find bits I can repurpose.

I usually don’t set out with the intention of writing a group of poems. I was writing the prose poems for a little while before it became clear to me that something about the form led to something in the voice that linked them into a series. They feel like landscapes compared to other poems of mine that feel more like gesture drawings; maybe it’s just the form tricking my eye, but they feel like they have more of a backdrop.

Q: With a handful of poems published in journals over the past while, how do you feel your work has evolved? What do you see your work heading towards?

A: My output has flagged in the past year. Sometimes I’ll go two or three months without writing a poem. That habit, which I fight with varying levels of success, makes it difficult to track my writing’s evolution because I feel like I’m always starting from scratch. I’ve just come out of a long quiet phase, and my writing recently has mirrored my older work in some ways; I’m still cutting any word that I suspect of weakness. I think my poems are still recognizably mine. But I’ve noticed that my rhythm has become almost robotic and my tone almost sullen, thanks to an emphasis on weaker syllables/sounds. At first I was put off because I felt like I’d lost dexterity, but now I’m trying to stick with this impulse and see where it brings me. I don’t know where I’m going with my writing, but I’d like to have the stamina to write longer pieces or even a book-length poem. Doing so still feels out of reach, though. I often return to old notes and diary entries when I write, trying to recycle material that hasn’t worked for me before. So while I’m sure my writing is evolving, the path I’m taking feels circular.

Q: You mention Elizabeth Willis’ Meteoric Flowers. Are there any other poets or collections you’ve read recently that have sparked your attention?

A: I’ve recently been returning this book that a student loaned me in the spring called We Lack in Equipment & Control by Jennifer H. Fortin. It’s fixed on the month of February and meets this cold temporal gridlock with steely vulnerability and dark humor. I’ve been very slowly reading Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson. I think a lot of it goes right through me in terms of meaning, so I’m reading it more for the experience.

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

A: Cedar Sigo is a writer I’ll always return to; I think particularly Stranger in Town and Selected Writings. I like reading Bunny Rogers’ tumblr. Susan Howe’s Debths and now That This. And reading my friends always makes me want to write.

Monday, December 18, 2023

TtD supplement #254 : seven questions for Anselm Berrigan

Anselm Berrigan’s books of poems include Pregrets, Primitive State, Come In Alone, and others. He is the poetry editor for the Brooklyn Rail, and also hosts the Rail’s online Wednesday afternoon reading series.

His poems “*****,” “Binge Better,” “Theories of Influence,” “Poem written during a zoom meeting” and “Still Here” appear in the thirty-ninth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems ““*****,” “Binge Better,” “Theories of Influence,” “Poem written during a zoom meeting” and “Still Here.”

A: They're a strange brew to me. "Binge Better" was written on a nyc subway not too long after some time I got to spend in Kenya at a kind of roving student-based but somehow international open mic bussing from situation to situation -- and then I'm on the train heading to one of my jobs thinking about pigeons and zebras as my affinities. The other poems are a little harder to talk about, or type about -- I think because the writing of Binge Better and the present in Binge Better are overlapped in a state of active remembering as writing. The other poems aren't so conducive to me to locating as writing so exactly.

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

A: “Still Here” is maybe close to some of what I’ve been able to write lately. I was in a lot of arthritis-based pain the last few years, and was able to have a surgery done in May that helped alleviate a lot of that pain. Then I had a burst of writing – none of which I’ve typed up – that I think “Still Here” maybe made room for – treating an impulse as a lead and following it and letting things get said then leaving it alone.

Q: When you say “leave it alone,” are you suggesting not typing up those particular pieces, but allowing them to inform some of what followed?

A: Yeah. Not never typing them up, but waiting a good long while, and reading them frequently, including at readings if one arises. I’ll do some shaping around the edges when I type things up, if needed, but I seem to wait longer and longer to get to the typing. “Binge Better” is not an example of that. I wrote that one in 2017. “Still Here” was written this past February.

Q: Do your pieces usually emerge from handwritten first drafts? And what kind of distance exists between those handwritten first drafts and the eventual finished poem?

A: I write almost everything by hand. And then I wait a long time to type things up. Waiting makes me change things less. And now I believe I get it in the writing. But that’s after millions of years of fucking around with every micro-bit of space and sound.

Q: With a small mound of published titles over the years, including your current works-in-progress, how do you feel your work has progressed? Where do you see your work headed?

A. On some level I’m just glad to get to write at all – I wrote a ton in 2020 during the first half-year of the pandemic, and then went blank for 2021 and most of 2022. Getting back around to very up on the surface experience and reconnection with friendship as a core has been what’s happening on one level. On another, maybe, I think I did a lot of work in the last ten years to really stretch my relationship to language – it’s resulted in books like Pregrets and Come In Alone, the former a set of slabs, very dense, and written in relation to painting and sculpture compositionally (not ekphrastically), and the latter a run of rectangles written out at the end of the page, clause by clause and totally on the outskirts of sense. That anyone reads these things amazes me sometimes, though I do aim for pleasure for readers on the sonic beat, which sometimes means people have to hear the work out loud to feel like they can get into it. I don’t mind living with that, but I am finding myself in this other kind of autobiographical space lately that feels like a dance between memory and temperament, with the present pressing the issue of being present, if that makes sense.

I've been thinking lately about this good-hearted teacher I had in 5th and 6th grades who also very cruelly abused me emotionally after my father died in the summer between those two grades. I think I really stopped trusting teachers after that, and it’s almost bizarre to me right now to know I became a teacher after all of that. I’m saying this because I think maybe I’m working up to write either out of or back into that experience or both. I had this other really disturbing experience a couple years ago, where a student ended a thesis performance by pulling out a big toy gun, finding me in the audience, and unloading it. Everyone seemed to assume I was in on this, and so mostly didn’t react other than with applause. It was the culmination of a lot failure – institutional first and foremost, but also a kind of collapse of trust in the face of the pandemic that just seemed to infect all of us in that particular program. I just this summer wrote a poem called “Fake Assasinated” that tries to get into it a little bit, though it’s a just a drop in the ocean.

Also, I had to have my right hip replaced this past May after discovering I was severely arthritic – I thought maybe I had a muscle injury that never healed properly, but once I had the diagnosis things seemed to get worse pretty fast. I feel like I had a six-month crash course on living with a disability, and doing that in a big city – walking hurt every step, and I had to rely on a cane and make it to work and so forth. Now the arthritis pain is gone, and I’m in better shape and figuring out what this ceramic hip I have has to say to me. So I’m saying all of this because I think my writing has changed in tenor since the surgery, and I’m still trying to figure that out. I can’t see that far into the future, writing-wise, and this is not meant to be a mournful preface (I am borrowing “mournful preface” from Fred Moten’s interview in his book B. Jenkins). The ongoing experience of renewal and decay is one of the lines I seem to be walking.

Q: It does sound as though you’ve experienced an enormous amount of shifts over the past few years, which can’t help but affect the tone of the writing. Do you consider yourself a different kind of writer now, or are you working similarly with a variation on approach? Or does it all come down to tone?

A: I feel freer. That may not make the work read as very different, but the whole experience of writing and making work does feel different in me. I don't have the measure of what I’m doing.

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

A: That’s a harder question to answer, for me, than maybe it should be, because I don’t ever feel like I can stay on top of reading everything I might like to be reading. That’s probably because reading is a big part of my jobs as part-time teacher and part-time editor. And then I always feel behind on those things. Plus when I don’t or do feel pressure I read real dorky things like comic book message boards, fantasy baseball chats, and plot summaries of shows I think I’d like but don’t want to take the time to watch.

I’ve read Harryette Mullen’s book-length poem “Muse & Drudge” aloud in writing classes – group readings, where everyone reads a page at a time as we go around – maybe thirty or forty times over the past twenty years, so that has to be imprinted on me. Actually just read it again yesterday with a class of poets. And Kevin Davies’ long poem “Karnal Bunt” I’ve probably read a couple dozen times, and read aloud with groups too.

In order to work through this internal agonistic space that had to do with approaching my father’s age when he died, back in 2019, I used Frank O’Hara’s poem “Joe’s Jacket” as a model for a poem I was asked to write for a performance series – we were asked to consider the word “proof” but with no particular constraints. So I decided I’d try to start by listing some things I knew to be true but couldn’t prove, and was able to get to some places and say some things. I love “Joe’s Jacket”.

But I love a lot of poems, and I think I get energy from those poems whether I’m thinking about them or not, because they’re permanently with me. There’s a poem by Hoa Nguyen that she's never put in a book that has become, like, my best secret friend. I think about individual poems that way much more often than books, which makes me wonder if we don’t have the role of books all wrong somehow. I just got to hear Dana Ward sing, with his band The Actual Fuck, live in Cincinnati, and that was completely amazing and inspiring. I am, in fact, quite capable of being inspired. And I’m sort of saving Dana’s long poem “Typing Wild Speech” to reread a little later this fall.

And all that said, I have been tremendously energized by a bunch of new books  that I’ve gotten to read in the last few years – books by Claire Hong, Charles Theonia, Courtney Bush, Chime Lama, Claire de Voogd, Kendra Sullivan, Jed Munson, Tse Hao Guang, LaTasha Diggs, Cliff Fyman, Ari Lisner, and George Albon, in particular. I’m leaving some stuff out. My old friend John Coletti has a new publication out – it’s called Attachment Simply – and it’s unbelievably great. I have a new book in the works, that will come out next year – it’s called Don’t Forget to Love Me – and it has sections, and one of those sections is called “John Coletti Imitation Racket”. So that should tell you something.

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

TtD supplement #253 : seven questions for Dessa Bayrock

Dessa Bayrock lives in Ottawa with two cats, one of whom is very loud and almost always nearby. She ran post ghost press for two years and has published three chapbooks: IS IT ABOUT RUINS AND GHOSTS?, The Trick to Feeling Safe at Home, and Worry & Fuck. She recently completed a doctorate about Canadian literary awards. You can find her, or at least more about her, at dessabayrock.com, or at @dessayo on Instagram.

Her poem “Winter Poem” appears in the thirty-ninth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “Winter Poem.”

A: Years ago I read a post online from a stranger that said something like I beg you to find ways of marking time that do not rely on the calendar, which link you more deeply to the natural world. It said something like notice the way the trees and flowers respond to the changing seasons. Mark the patterns of birds floating north for the summer and south for the winter. I chewed this idea over and over and to be honest I'm still chewing on it, but I've come to the conclusion that this stranger was describing a kind of personal almanac, which is an idea that really appealed to me. After all, I've always been interested in the idea of time as a palimpsest, with every year laying over the previous one. Sometimes these layers allow things to leak through; sometimes it's like jam soaking into the edges of a book, and sometimes it's more like a greased piece of paper through which I can see the shifting figures and shadows of my previous years as I overlap them.

All this to say: one of my favourite additions to my personal almanac is my habit of writing a new year's poem, which happens at a funny kind of crossroads: the year turns over, according to the calendar, but the season is hitting its stride in earnest. It's a strange little intersection where the season says I'm only just hitting my peak while the calendar says we are starting something new. It's a continuation; it's an interruption. It's an interesting time to write a poem.

As with most of my poems, many parts of this are metaphorical but also quite literal, and specifically the central image of the boots: at the beginning of the season, I broke the zipper on my heavy duty winter boots and also ripped open the side seam on my traditional autumn / early winter Blundstones. Both went to the cobbler, who lost them for months, and in the meantime I had nothing to wear on my feet. I spent the first half of the winter in three different pairs of borrowed boots, each of which failed me in their own way: I wore a hole through the bottom of the first pair, slipped around in the too-big second pair and had a dramatic fall that I think fractured something in my elbow, and the third pair fit well and stayed water-tight but had absolutely no insulation, and I froze my feet over and over again every time I stepped outside.  

Winter has never been my favourite season; I hate feeling trapped inside when the weather is bad, and I forget to eat, and every year I have at least one major slip and fall that leaves me gasping breathlessly up at the sky like a beached fish. Writing this poem was a way to write out all the ways the season was trying to trip me up, to rip me up, and all the ways I was still, nevertheless, relentlessly moving forward. And sure, it's not all good; spring means the revelation of everything that's been rotting under the snow before it means flowers. I guess I tried to write this poem in a way that felt sympathetic to winter, that tried to relate the season back in a way that winter would recognize — but also in a way that felt hopeful in a way that winter rarely does, to me. It feels a bit like a compromise, I guess — the same way that new year's seems to be a compromise between the season ramping up and the year ending.

When I wrote this poem, it felt like it had been the hardest winter of my life. And it had been — but it was a winter before Covid, and several winters in lockdown showed me how much more difficult and strange a winter season could be. All the same, in all the hard winters I've experienced since, this poem has felt a bit like a loving road map from my past self. See? She says. Spring always comes. And sooner or later the cobbler will find your boots in the back of the shop and call you to pick them up.

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

A: This poem is honestly one of my favourites from the last few years — a piece that feels pretty representative of what I try to do in my poems, and what I’ve been trying to do for a while, which is namely: unlock the universal through the specific. Sometimes, as I said above, this makes them much more literal than figurative, and I know this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea — I once got a rejection from a well-known Canadian literary mag that basically (and kindly) said: have you tried being less literal? And yeah, I have, and I don’t like it. My favourite poems have always had a clear narrative path, a reliance moreso on simile than metaphor or other abstract imagery, and take on a kind of “braided” form where a central image spins out into several different paths before coming back together at the end. I like my poems to feel conversational, and honest, and this poem accomplishes that goal in a way that I, personally, find satisfying. Which in the end is what I think poetry has to be: first and foremost for myself, and whether or not other people like it is up to them.

Q: What first drew you to this kind of conversational approach? And what do you feel might be possible through this that might not be otherwise, say, if you were “less literal”?

A: I first started thinking and working in this conversational approach because of Kayla Czaga, whose poems are likewise conversational narratives in a way. I was immediately struck – and immediately in love with – the way that she inserts the names of real people from her life into her poems, which seemed to unlock something for me. I’d read poems for ages where poets would reference someone they knew but obscure the name, in a Poem for A___ kind of way. For a long time I respected that utility, but seeing the way that Czaga ignored it or defied it broke things open for me: You don’t have to obscure or hide from the reader. I use this kind of conversational narrative approach to build intimacy, leaning into the idea of telling a story rather than building literary impressions the reader is left to interpret themselves. I think it’s important, maybe now more than ever, to show the reader that the poet is a real person on the other side of the poem. Poems aren’t just thought experiments or art created in a vacuum – they’re moments in time that have been pressed between waxed paper like flowers so they can be saved, seen from all angles, studied, remembered. And, like Czaga, I now use the real names of my friends (with permission!) when they appear in my poems. The poem wouldn’t exist without them, so why would I hide it? It feels like another way of being open with the reader and coming to them in good faith: listen, I’m telling you the truth here, as best as I can. There are other places where truth becomes foggy in poems – but there’s no need to invent places for that to happen. I think it’s stronger if it happens naturally.

Q: You mention Kayla Czaga: have you any other models for this kind of work?

A: Ada Limón comes to mind; Sabrina Benaim maybe, although she plays with space on the page much more than I do; Chloe N. Clark, although the worlds of her poems are often a little unsettling rather than the more straight-forward worlds of my poems.

Q: With three chapbooks under your belt, as well as your current works-in-progress, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: My first chapbook (IS IT ABOUT RUINS AND GHOSTS?, Ghost City Press 2019) is still very dear to me, but feels very representative of my poetry when I was just starting out – like Conyer Clayton’s but the sun, and the ships, and the fish, and the waves, those poems were a way to reckon with the jungle of literal nightmares that descended every night for almost two years. When I return to these poems, I’m struck – especially given what we’ve been talking about – about my use of you in these poems -- a figure that the reader slips into, but a slippery you that refers to six or seven different people throughout the chapbook. I don’t use anyone’s name, except in the acknowledgements, which feels like a way of creating distance between me and the reader. You can't know what I’m talking about for sure, these poems tell the reader, as though to pass the confusion of my nightmares onto them. I still use you in a fair number of poems – but for quite some time now it has meant me, as though I’m writing a poem to myself. (Which, to be fair, I usually am.) So this is an interesting evolution, to me – instead of using you to create distance (I’m over here and you are over there and you don’t even know who you are), I’ve started using you to create intimacy (You, by which I mean me, by which I invite you into me, because we are the same, and here is what we are feeling).

In some ways these poems feel tentative to me, even as they feel fierce – I was pushing into new ways of writing in response to these nightmares, but also felt like challenging them on the page was giving them more power. Poems felt then to me like songs in a musical: a necessary expression of something that refused to be curtailed by mere dialogue alone. These poems say: I have something to write about and I don’t know what it is just yet. They feel a bit like dumping a tote bag on a table and saying does anyone see my keys in here? I think that’s valid, and that’s useful to some extent, but now I’m looking forward to how I might imagine poetic projects differently. I’m in the early stages of formulating a project on a theme that I can trace through others’ works and through historical records and wrestle with in different modes of writing and thinking, kind of in the vein of A Pillow Book by Suzanne Buffam, which feels like a meaningful and interesting way of levelling up my work. Poems responding to the poet’s own emotions can only go so far, I think – it’s time to find other frameworks and ideas to build into.

Q: While you do reference “songs in a musical,” I wonder about the music of your lyric, even within the first-person conversational. How aware are you, if at all, of sound and flow and music as you write?

A: Oh, yes. Very aware! I generally draft quickly, and try not to be precious about line length or flow or things like internal rhyme, but once I start editing it’s all about the flow of a piece – any story has a good flow. I read my poems out loud over and over and over again while I’m working on them, trying to make sure it sounds the way I want. I have a pretty good sense of meter, or at least I think I do, because I come from a background of sonnet-writing; sonnets were all I wrote for years and years and years, deadly formal, iambic pentameter, the whole nine yards. There’s something so beautifully insistent about the flow of a sonnet, about the math and structure of it, and while my poems now are decidedly less formal I really try to retain that sensibility of rhythm and flow. Sometimes I’ll work on a poem for ages, and it looks great on the page – but it gets stuck in my mouth when I try to read it out. So back in the box it goes until I can make it line up with my sense of what it should be.

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

A: A poem I turn to over and over and over again is the first poem in Tara-Michelle Ziniuk’s collection Whatever, Iceberg, which is called “What if love existed but you didn’t have your notification settings turned on?”. It’s basically just a series of playful questions which take on a kind of urgency as the poem progresses, as the questions become rephrased, as the meaning of the poem both develops and devolves. The last stanza goes: If a relationship happened but one party fell off the face of the earth? Was the earth love? Was falling? Was soil? Was traffic? Was a plane? Was a face? Was your face love? It was to me.

That last four-word statement is the only non-question in the poem, and I cried abruptly when I first read it, the same way your body knows to immediately physiologically shoot out exactly two tears from each eye when you get your nose pierced. Although TMZ writes a more abstract narrative in this poem than I would, there’s something so beautifully shifting about its colours and impressions. And then that last line – whew. Like watching dancers whirling across a stage and suddenly, beautifully all stop in the same moment. Finally you can see the image – but also the image has disappeared, because the true image was its motion. I think this poem is exactly like that. I think a lot of good art is like that.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

TtD supplement #252 : seven questions for Andy Weaver

Andy Weaver’s fourth book of poetry, The Loom, is forthcoming from the University of Calgary Press. Recent publications are the chapbooks So/I (above/ground; longlisted for the 2022 Nelson Ball Prize) and Ligament/Ligature (Model Press). He teaches creative writing, contemporary poetry, and poetics at York University.

His poems “Still,” “Earworms and Eye Rhymes” and “The Language of Obsolescence” appear in the thirty-ninth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “Still,” “Earworms and Eye Rhymes” and “The Language of Obsolescence.”

A: These three poems come from my forthcoming book, The Loom (U of Calgary Press), which is comprised of three long poems about becoming a father and raising two sons. These poems are from the third poem, “The Bridge,” which is written to/about my youngest son. Like many of the parts of the poems, these pieces meditate on the interrelationship of language and experience in relation to love, parenting, and identity.

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

A: I’ve been working over the last 7-8 years to reconnect more to lyric poetry. Starting out back in the 1990s, I was trained almost exclusively in lyric poetry. Then grad school exploded my understanding of poetry and I became really interested in experimental poetry. Over the years since, my work had moved away from lyric to a pretty abstract investigation of language and other abstractions—my third book, This, went pretty far in this direction. I’ve been working to move back closer to the lyric. At the same time, I’m not very comfortable with writing lyric poetry, and I find that discomfort interesting and productive. So these poems are part of my recent attempt to be more lyrical but without trusting all that much in the lyric I.

Q: What is it about writing lyric that makes you uncomfortable? And if you are uncomfortable, why not simply move into another direction entirely?

A: Lyric poetry doesn’t have to foreground the I, and it doesn’t have to be a veiled discussion of the writer’s personality/opinion—but I think it still often does both. I tend to like poetry that foregrounds ideas and investigation over emotions and certainty, and I generally think that the world has had enough of white straight men writing about the life of being a straight white man. So, the challenge of writing about the experience of becoming a parent was, for me, about trying to write something that was generalized and intellectualized but not completely abstract or cold. At first, the project wasn’t going to be lyric at all, but the poems were too dry and emotionless, so the lyric provided an access point back to emotion and actuality that the poems needed—but I have been trying to make sure that the poems don’t give in to emotion or personal actuality too much.

Q: Do you have any models for the kind of work you’re attempting?

A: When I first started the project, my guiding principle was trying to write something that combined John Ashbery and Robert Duncan—Ashbery’s refusal to really discuss anything directly with Duncan’s political interest and open use of his life (Duncan is my favourite poet, but I tend to like his politics and wordplay—his mysticism can go too far for me). The last few years, I’ve been reading a lot of Ann Lauterbach and Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, and I like how they write what I think of as meditative poems that never really say what they are meditating on. I think they manage to do that more deftly than I can—for better or worse, I find that I need to have some central idea or concern or experience to function as a kind of central spoke that structures the piece. For these poems, it’s parenting, love, and language.

Q: When I was first thinking overtly of composing parenting poems, I drew on work by poets such as Margaret Christakos, Pattie McCarthy, Rachel Zucker and Farid Matuk, among others. Have you any specific models for this kind of work?

A: I’ve read Christakos, McCarthy, and Zucker, but I didn’t have specific models. Originally, I thought of the poems as meditations on a specific type of love, rather than specifically parenting poems; I still tend to think of them that way, though there ended up being a lot more specifically “parenting” moments included than I expected there would be.

Q: You present the impression that you compose poems, and poetry manuscripts, as full-length projects. How did you land at this particular approach?

A: My last few projects have been book-length in scope, yes. At first, it was a challenge I set myself, to see if I could do it (the result was my third book, This), and I liked the opportunity to keep looking at an idea or issue from multiple perspectives. The Loom presented itself because I had kids, and I was fascinated by them but also by the change to myself and to my worldview by becoming a parent. Since that book has been completed a few years ago, I've mostly gone back to smaller poems that work individually.

Q: With three published books and another forthcoming, as well as your current works-in-progress, how do you feel your work has progressed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: I'm really not that sure how I’ve progressed as a writer. I’ve definitely progressed as a reader of poetry—I read much more widely now than I did years ago, and I hope that breadth has complicated my own writing and keeps it from settling into easy patterns. I think the lyric/experimental divide that has been in my work from the start is still there. I’d like to work to at least partially bridge that divide and find a more successful middle ground that incorporates aspects of both. At the same time, I also still want to write pieces that are more firmly one or the other. I have a few longer projects that are in progress, so I hope those will continue well. For the moment, at least, I like that I don’t really know how to categorize my writing.  

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

A: In my day job, I tend to focus on Black Mountain, especially Duncan, Creeley, Olson, and Cage. Those four seem to stay evergreen to me. I also love H.D., and perhaps surprisingly, Pablo Neruda.

I like to read Dianne Seuss, Maureen N. McLane, Jordan Abel, Erin Mouré, Dionne Brand. More recently, I’ve been going back multiple times to dip in and out of Helen Hajnoczky’s Frost and Pollen and Nicole Markotic’s After Beowulf, both of which are just confusingly excellent. But when my own writing is stalled, I tend to head to philosophy and literary criticism to kickstart my brain and get it back to focusing on language and its possibilities. 

Monday, November 13, 2023

TtD supplement #251 : six questions for Robyn Schelenz

Robyn Schelenz is from Birdsboro, Pennsylvania. Her poems are at Maudlin House, The Nervous Breakdown, Words and Sports Quarterly, Gone Lawn and elsewhere. She currently lives in San Francisco, where she works when not doing the bidding of her dog, Donut. Special thanks to Bending Genres and Benjamin Niespodziany for hosting the workshop in which “It was (a new world record)” came about, and to Ben for his thoughtful edits. Her new chapbook, Natural Healing, is new from Bottlecap Press.

Her poems “It was (a new world record),” “Ice” and “Wildlife” appear in the thirty-ninth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “It was (a new world record),” “Ice” and “Wildlife.”

A: About two weeks into this year, I took a workshop with Benjamin Niespodziany at Bending Genres (both great). Ben shared stuff from Kiik Araki-Kawaguchi (“about the author”) and Sabrina Orah Mark (“Box Three, Spool Five”) and other people I hadn’t read! The first poem came out of there and was surely influenced by those discoveries. I lay on the floor in my parents’ guest room and that came out.

That kick-started the love of the prose poem for me. It’s a really interesting form that allows you to do things I like to do in all poems (compression) in a way that allows you to get away with some really maximalist stuff. You can also play with people’s expectations of the story they think they will receive in that form. Particularly with pronouns — I can introduce “they”s and “we”s that play a role in events without really explaining themselves. Which is basically how life feels to me (why I was a sociology undergrad!). There's some autobiographical stuff under the exaggerated framework in “It was” but it’s all stuff it wouldn’t be fair for me to claim in reality. Childishly wanting people to applaud your sorrow and family being the first to ignore that is funny, to me. The only fact in it is how elephants grow.

“Ice” I wrote in the winter walking my dog in San Francisco where I live and there is NO ice. But there is fog … as a northeasterner, you’re trained to expect it as you go through life in the winter. Wherever ice is, it generates a story, I think. I could read a huge anthology about ice.

“Wildlife” continues a theme – I think transitions and fears can be humorous. Sometimes there are things we are afraid of or would be humiliated by that we can easily imagine and play over in our heads. The world is usually more complex than we think and therefore we are, too. I would love being a brown oxford in the dark corner of someone’s home.

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

A: For a while I’ve been sort of obsessed with juxtaposing natural figures with consumerism in hopefully interesting ways. one of the things that came out of the workshop as well was a little snippet about trees going shopping. that could obviously get heavy-handed. but i can’t be the only person who’s looked at a strip mall with its decorative fauna and felt like i’m in a half story. i think surrealism and absurdism can help us tell stories about our natural world which is in an increasingly surreal state. so i have a little chapbook coming out from Bottlecap Press called Natural Healing that leans into all that. Horses going to therapy, bulls relieving anxiety by compulsively shopping, trees going to space, bowling pins being hospitalized when they fall down. I think we are in a very anxious place about how our world is, how we can fix it, and if we even can at all. and hopefully opening imaginative space helps people think about this. Jason Heroux in his books does a great job of animating the world in surprising and empathetic ways. I got his books this spring and was like Oh my god! his work is so pleasing yet so heartbreaking.

the short prose poem form is key to a lot of that work. i think it offers some reassurance even if it screws with expectations – paragraph logic is so much of our daily lives. it propels inevitability. and there is also a little of, “don’t worry, this will soon be over,” haha. Which can also generate a little … light doom.

Q: How do you see or consider your unit of composition? Are you the author of poems, of chapbook-length manuscripts or of eventual book-length manuscripts? Do your poems begin as solitary creatures that eventually cluster, or pieces of a much larger whole?

A: I’ve usually got a bunch of loners, though much as in high school, loners find each other. I’ve got a bunch with “prose poem” buttons on their backpacks. Some with certain tones. A few overtly political. The most recent cycle I’ve been doing is the first time an idea, or even a title, “Natural Healing,” animated a whole and prompted poems on top of what was previously gathered. Which was fun, prompting myself to continue to poetically imagine and dig into that particular vein. It’s like a bunch of poems running around wearing the same hat. And I’m the coach whistling on the sidelines. Working on a larger scale is still beyond my poetic muscles. I enrolled in an MFA just this fall, aka a few weeks ago, in hopes of improving my poetic discipline, organization, muscles, etc. To really think intelligently about how a manuscript can be made. It’s at Saint Mary’s in California with Matthew Zapruder, whose book Why Poetry was really important to me. It’s been really stimulating.

Q: What was it about Zapruder’s book that struck? And how have you been incorporating those prompts into your own work?

A: I think I spent my teens and 20s getting an unorthodox poetic education. I was really drawn to writers like Apollonaire that I couldn’t read in French. (I only know English, despite attempts at learning half a dozen languages over my life). I loved the blogs of Momus and of Gilles Weinzaepflen, as well as Gilles’ poetic narratives in song under the name Toog (“The General Says” is still a favorite). I never felt like I had an entry point into American poetry or even English-language poetry. Maybe I was scared! But I really liked the heavy estrangement of reading stuff that was in Google Translate, back when it was way less precise. Or by select translators. Christophe Tarkos’ long poem “Toto,” which is translated in “Ma Langue Est Poétique,” is probably still the poem that fascinates me most. Yeah, I know it’s translated, but it puts me in a different perceptual space than anything else I’ve ever read! Some of this was a reaction to a high school friend writing in a very Yeats and Eliot-influenced style and that being the sole definition of poetry. So therefore, I was, by his definition, a prose stylist! But, I was drawn to poetry. So I had to go find my own models.

I think Why Poetry helped re-introduce me to American poetry and introduced the concept that finding your own particular models and influences are part of the work of being a poet. It’s not a waste of time or barrier to your own uniqueness. It was an education in language and how individual poems fit into poetry as a cultural resource and how they all feed into each other in a way that makes space for all sorts of individual styles or schools. It also introduced me, meaningfully, to what finding your audience and finding your community really are. I mean, we live in a spiritual wasteland, getting any poetic food is delicious. But sometimes you encounter stuff that makes you go, this is it, this tastes amazing! And that genuine interest is the beginning of finding an audience AND a community, I think.

I mean, I found your blogs, rob, through random queries about poetry many times over the years, even as a very, very young poet. It’s such a great and vital education on its own of the limitless possibility of poems. Funny enough, I reached out to Gilles/Toog about poetry once and he referred me to Jennifer K. Dick, a DUSIE author. And she was so helpful in providing the kind of advice about community and audience that I'm echoing. Take workshops, or send letters. Passenger pigeons. People in the poetry world are generous, I think. But it’s helpful to have language to talk about what you really like and what your aesthetic is, and Zapruder’s book gave me a great foundation to start thinking about that.

Being a poet is a social affair as well as a personal one. It’s also like being queer -- you have to find your people. Even if it takes a long time. And then you have to summon up the courage to say hi. (I say this as a queer person from Amish country, I would know, haha). Hi can be a big word! But just go for it. Good things start with Hi.

Q: Have any of your poems begun to cluster into groups that might evolve into manuscripts, or are you not there yet? How do you see your poems in relation to each other?

A: I’m still really in love with the idea of short forms. Chapbooks are like charcuterie for me; you have this delicious transitional meal. You may think you know what you're getting but you don’t actually know half the time, and there’s an emphasis on form. You appreciate it in a different way. That being said, this perspective is probably informed by our warped attention span as a culture and in me personally.

With a manuscript, I’m attracted to titles. I like the idea of a title always sort of standing behind individual poems in a collection, informing the interpretation. I haven’t yet come up with the name that would call what I’ve currently got to attention and prompt them to arrange themselves in a longer form. I could imagine a three section book, maybe. Natural Healing, Natural Disaster, and Displacement/Revenge ... or whatever I would call spaghetti drowning the world, like in my poem in Dusie. And then once I get that out of my system, I think I’d like to do something really different, experiment and problematize my way of writing. Like planting crops in a field. You need to and want to change it up.

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

Q: Oh good question … I love picking up Amanda Nadelberg’s Bright Brave Phenomena. Salamun’s “Mute and Time” always gets me with its fourth line. I first read that in translation at Del Ray Cross’ Shampoo Poetry, which has unlimited treasures in it. (Some jerk messed with the old domain but you can read it here http://shampoo-poetry.com/ ) I love this one poem by Erica Ehrenberg. Cort Day’s collection The Chime is one I always want to know where it is in my house. Graham Irvin’s Liver Mush is just visceral and cool and reminds me to be my version of that.

I love work that reminds me to be playful, joyful and precise all at the same time. Precisely playful. It’s an aspiration.

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

TtD supplement #250 : seven questions for Noah Berlatsky

Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer and the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941/48 (Rutgers UP 2014). Poetry chapbooks include It’s Fab (Origami Poetry Project 2023), No Devotions (LJMcD Communications 2023) and a forthcoming full length, Not Akhmatova (Ben Yehuda Press). His chapbook Send $19.99 for Supplements and Freedom: Collages and Uncreative Writing, is brand-new from above/ground press.

His poems “King of Kong,” “Row Your Cab,” “Practice Makes Kenny G,” “Australia” and “Stuffed Unicorn” appear in the thirty-ninth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “King of Kong,” “Row Your Cab,” “Practice Makes Kenny G,” “Australia” and “Stuffed Unicorn.”

A: This group of poems is all over the place! I started writing 30 years ago, with a 15-20 year break in the middle, but I've only had any “success”, even by poetry standards of success, in the last couple years. That means I have a lot (a lot!) of poems lying around I never got to publish. It’s a heterogenous blob of abortive semi-experimental burble, of which these poems are a small unrepresentative cross-section.

I think “Row Your Cab,” is the oldest one here; it’s from 1997 as near as I can tell.  I was reading/thinking about/inspired by/parodying the New York Schol poets, especially John Ashbery probably, (though I don't know that it sounds much like him) and maybe Ron Padgett? I just picked four words I found funny/weird and wrote little nonsense glorps with them. I was young(er) and thought I was feisty.

“Australia” is I think from a year or two later—maybe 2000-2001? The main influence here is the Chicago theater troupe Barrel of Monkeys, which worked with children to write very short stories and then turned them into these amazing nonsense surreal stream-of-consciousness short short plays. I found their work wonderful and exhilarating, and wrote a bunch of prose poems trying to capture that manic, bonk-your-head-like-a-coconut energy. I think we had also taken a trip to Australia around this time, so we had in fact seen tree cows in the wild.

Fast forward to 2022, when I’m writing poems with the vague, unexpected hope that someone might publish them. I saw Penny Lane's wonderful documentary “Listening to Kenny G” at the end of 2021. The movie pushes you to think about why certain art is supposed to be bland and mainstream, and explores just how weird Kenny G is as an artist who in some ways seems to like practice more than music itself. As a Jewish maybe neurodivergent artist obsessed with repetition and process, it really spoke to me. So I wrote a poem about that. Not sure why the goldfish are in there, but I guess they seemed right.

“King of Kong,” was inspired  I think most directly by the movie “The Reef: Stalked” which I reviewed at the Chicago Reader. But also inspired just by the general Hollywood thing where we're always imagining some monster as a threat to the planet when it's been clear for a long time that the biggest threat to the planet is us. Also I enjoyed fitting all those weird supervillain/monster names into a sonnet.

“Stuffed Unicorn” is part of a series of I guess quasi-cubist, Gertrude Stein-inspired sketches of small objects lying around our house. Not sure if my wife bought the plush toy for our daughter or if she just thought it was cute and wanted it for herself? In any case, these were great fun to write.

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

A: I think my poetry is united in that I tend to pick up a fairly specific influence or idea and then run with it. Which means that it can look pretty different depending on what the influence or idea happens to be.

Right now I’m writing a whole bunch of nonense/surreal/New York school sonnets which take snippets of language from various places and turn it into word slurry. Clark Coolidge’s “88 Sonnets” was the most direct inspiration—though I think I’m only going to get up to 61 or so, I’m running out of steam. They’re related to “Row Your Cab,” though they work more like the poems in the chapbook I’m publishing with you, “Send $19.99 for Supplements and Freedom.”

I also just wrote a bunch of dada sound poet things somewhat inspired by the poems of petro ck who edits the wonderful site dadakuku, and somewhat, though more abstractly, inspired by Basho’s famous frog poem. They’re not much like anything I’ve written before...though the repetition echoes the Kenny G poem a bit?

Q: You mention an influence from the New York School; what is it about their work that strikes, that you wish to engage with in your own work?

A: It’s a somewhat anxious influence...John Ashbery’s snooty impenetrability irritated me for a long time, though I think I’ve more or less made my peace with it now. But my creative writing program at Oberlin didn’t really focus on a lot of avant garde experimental traditions, and the New York School poets were the people I knew about/had access to who saw poetry as a game or a series of weird jokes and pratfalls rather than as an expression of sincere romantic suchness. I like sincere romantic suchness too, sometimes, but I can also find it restrictive and oppressive. A lot of my poems are more head than heart (though I’m pretty passionate about the head) and the New York School was one way of finding that out or exploring that.

I recently read the wonderful Craig Dworkin/Kenneth Goldsmith anthology from 2011 Against Expression which is about uncreative appropriation/collage writing. That’s more my jam, and I wish I’d known there were people out there doing that when I began my own collage experiments in 1998-99 or so. But I didn’t, and the New York School was the closest I could get. So I appreciate them for that, even if I wouldn’t exactly say I feel like that’s my tradition.

Q: Which leads into the obvious question: who would you consider your tradition?

A: I guess I did set myself up for that. What Craig Dworkin calls uncreative writing—collage, appropriation, erasure, and so forth—really speaks to me. But that also means I’m just a packrat and often just sound like whatever I last read.

Q: I’m curious about your engagement with “collage, appropriation, erasure, and so forth,” as you say. What do you feel is possible through such forms that might not have been possible otherwise?

A: I should say first that my engagement with uncreative writing is in large part that it just sends me; it’s pretty visceral. When I first saw Rory Macbeth’s poem *The Bible (alphabetized)* which is just what it says and has like six pages or something of “be be be be be be be be be be be be be be be be be”—I just love that. What a crazy thing to do.

So there’s that. More theoretically, I think uncreative writing is a way to get away from a romantic confessional “I” and turn words or language into a game, or a mockery, or to bounce different language bits off each other and watch them clash or melt.

I just released a chapbook from LJMcD Communication called No Devotions which is a bunch of erasures of Mary Oliver poems. I really don’t like Mary Oliver much for all the reasons you wouldn’t—glib exhortation makes me itch. But at the same time I appreciate and respect that a lot of people get something from her. Manipulating her text is a way to make fun of her writing a bit, but also to try to find something in it that speaks to me or that I can appreciate the way other people seem to.

Would it be possible to do that in a more confessional vein? I mean, maybe (I just sort of did it in the above paragraph, right?) But for me it was more fun and more meaningful to try to talk about it in a way that took me out of the equation, perhaps because that mirrors the way I feel like I’m not really able to enter into Oliver’s poems.

Q: I like that example of Macbeth, a name I haven’t heard before. The piece you describe reminds me of finding, some thirty years ago or so in a Canadian literary journal as part of a special “sound poetry” issue, someone had reworked the words of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” in alphabetical order, so the recording begins “a a a at at at an,” and so forth, thus striking the narrative out entirely for the sake of seemingly-arbitrary sound. Absolutely marvellous. I’ve been years attempting to figure out who that was and try and get my hands on a recording of it again, but no luck yet.

So how do you approach a poem, then, in terms of composition: do you approach from the level of sound or of language, or of seeking a way to mangle and manipulate and simply see what comes?

A: The Macbeth is in the anthology I mentioned, Against Expression, along with lots of other goodies.

I wanted to add to my last answer that uncreative writing can often be algorithmic-my Mary Oliver erasures remove all words with a letter of my name—and that makes writing a poem into a kind of puzzle or filling in a form. It feels like playing Tetris or crossing things off a list. It’s very comforting (which is what some people get from Mary Oliver, I think)

Which is a segue into your next question…I approach poems all different ways I think?

I guess they more often start with an idea than a sound or image, but that can be a topic I want to write about (as with “King Of Kong”) or a procedure (like “Row Your Cab”) or something I want to imitate. I get a lot of ideas reading poetry, where I’ll want to respond to an argument or play with a style.

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

A: I don’t have a great answer to this! As I said, I kind of jump off of whatever next thing I’m reading at the moment, rather than going back to things. I’ve got a project inspired by Anna Akhmatova which involved revisiting her work a lot over the past year or so, and a similar thing with Adelaide Crapsey’s cinquains. And I’ve been returning to that Against Expression anthology I mentioned on and off since I got it a year or so back.

Sunday, October 15, 2023

Touch the Donkey : thirty-ninth issue,

The thirty-ninth issue is now available, with new poems by Robyn Schelenz, Andy Weaver, Dessa Bayrock, Anselm Berrigan, Noah Berlatsky, Rasiqra Revulva and Alana Solin.

Eight dollars (includes shipping). While you're enjoying our Hall of Wonders, your car unfortunately will be subject to repeated break-ins.

Friday, October 6, 2023

TtD supplement #249 : seven questions for Miranda Mellis

Miranda Mellis is the author of Crocosmia (forthcoming, Nightboat Books); The Revolutionary; Demystifications; The Instead (with Emily Abendroth); The Quarry; The Spokes; None of This Is Real; Materialisms; and The Revisionist. Originally from San Francisco, she now lives in the woods in Olympia and teaches at Evergreen State College. mirandamellis.com

Her poems “Utopia,” “No One Told Us” and “on the difference between choreography and improvisation” appear in the thirty-eighth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “Utopia,” “No One Told Us” and “on the difference between choreography and improvisation.”

A: “No One Told Us” explores how difficult it can be to take in and relate to material realities and alterities–however actual, persistent, present, and communicative–for those raised to think and read reductively, and literally, for example, those who read the bible as literal.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t wisdom traditions with prescient sacred texts that illuminate reality. In The Lost Steps (1953) Alejo Carpentier described the sacred K’iche’ text Popol vuh as “the only cosmogony ever to have intuited the threat of the machine and the tragedy of the sorcerer’s apprentice.” The “doll people” / robots of the Popol vuh (which you can read as AI or as people who behave mechanistically without heart) are punished for exploiting animals, whereas in the bible Adam is given ‘dominion’ – leave to dominate. Domination reified as ‘natural’ and the overinflation of the singular authority figure (‘the cult of the soul’) forecloses openness to the multidudinous play of voices which together generate open ended questions and living knowledge, which is shapeshifting and changeful. This, in addition to a dearth of affordances for democratic power sharing, in a political economy dominated by the imperatives of capital, is impasse-making. That is, the poem is about mystification.

“On the Difference Between Choreography and Improvisation” takes up the possibility of animal liberation as an artwork that combines choreography (a plan, a scheme, a developed ethics, a useable concept, a mobile framework) and improvisation (the kairos moment; the time of action, with its energy of response and imminent intensity, opening the window, leaping out of the lab).

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

A: I’m writing a novel, Crocosmia [due out from Nightboat in 2025]. The poems are transiences–switches that open and close with quick little currents. The novel, by comparison, is (an) enduring. It entails, for me, unusual writing problems. Or, a poem is poring over a card, a novel is building a house of cards.

Writing poems feels as intimate as thinking and breathing, whereas writing a novel (at least at the moment) feels like constantly falling, with no ground in sight. It feels impossible!

Q: If poems are poring over cards, how do you see your unit of composition? Are you the author of poems, of chapbook-length manuscripts or of book-length manuscripts? Do your poems begin as solitary creatures that eventually cluster, or pieces of a much larger whole?

A: The poems ‘begin as solitary creatures’ as you nicely put it. Most often they remain that, alone on the page in a file or on a piece of paper somewhere forever, lost to the middens of time or my chaos. The poems in Unconsciousness Raising clustered, like magnetic filings, over a concerted period of time during which I just found myself writing, or catching, poems, one after another, without knowing exactly why they were flying in the window. Almost like a kind of harvest, these poems . . . fruiting bodies!

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

A: Bob Glück’s sentences are a model for me of how much poetry, mutability, and emotional complexity a completely original sentence can hold, from sorrow to comedy. I like a sentence that swerves unexpectedly. At the level of story, from the beginning of my life as a reader I was ‘imprinted’ (how a young animal learns who and what to trust, described as a process of being written upon!) by such a wide and various readings that I wouldn’t know how to locate a singular model. That said, I feel kinship with what I’ll call mutant feminism, for example, Les Guérillères by Monique Wittig, as well as the radical, prefigurative, anarchist Ursula Le Guin novel The Dispossessed, which was formative.

Prefiguration, prolepsis, and enactment are keywords for what I am attempting in my current novel, while living in a complex forest ecosystem which is regularly subject to the harms of clear cutting is motivating the political desire and rage the novel enacts, and seeps into its style, as well as the imagery.

Q: What is it specifically about the lyric sentence—something I’ve been the past decade exploring as well, via models such as Rosmarie Waldrop, Anna Gurton-Wachter and Julie Carr, for example—that appeals? What do you feel is possible through this level of sentence-attention that might not be possible through, say, a scattered or fragmented line-break?

A: Long ago I read an interview with Lydia Davis about translating Proust and in that wonderful conversation she says, a sentence is a thought. We could ask, of a sentence, what kind of thought is this? How many layers of thought can a sentence hold? In the case of Proust, or, for that matter, Marquez, Beckett, Nanni Balestrini, or Thomas Bernhard, where sentences can be chapter length, or book length, we could say that thought is unending, not periodic, so, no periods. Line breaks and scatters give us gaps, breathlines, pauses, emptinesses, breakdowns, ruptures, quietnesses, simultaneity. In “Bewilderment” Fanny Howe writes “Like a scroll or a comic book that shows the same exact characters in multiple points and situations, the look of the daily world was governed only by which point you happened to be focused on at a particular time. Everything was occurring at once. So what if the globe is round? The manifest reality is flat.” If everything is occurring at once, then what shall the subject, so to speak, predicate, and how? For Howe in that essay it’s an ethical, ontological, and spiritual question. Making choices doesn’t end bewilderment, characters, as she writes, remain as uncertain at the end as they are at the beginning.

Like many writers, I also have been making collages and painting for decades, a welcome break from discursivity and conceptuality, a different kind of sense-making and improvisation, yet there is something similar, at times, about the kinds of moves you might make with an image as the moves you might make with sentences–being surprised by a comedic accident, or some unexpected candor, digression or errantry that is satisfyingly exact, open and generative. When a sentence can be experienced as complete, lucid, and yet unfinished and alive at the same time, that’s what delights.

To try to answer your last question regarding what might be “possible through this level of sentence-attention that might not be possible through, say, a scattered or fragmented line-break” I wonder if it has something to do with our expectations of sentences, the pointed way a sentence addresses the reader, in contrast with the poem’s more ambiguous sense of address? We expect the poem to do something unexpected, we know that we don’t know where it will go. Perhaps with a sentence, when it does something unexpected, we are more surprised, for example when the second clause relates only in the most elliptical way to the first, and the third one goes somewhere else entirely. I’d wager that people who do this kind of thing with prose sentences by and large began (and continue) as writers of poems. In other words, poetry is a constant.

A sentence that seems to exceed its various parts, that feels like the work of more than one writer, as if multiple instruments are sounding, combines the pleasures of prose with the pleasure of music, which is to say, of poetry.

Q: With a handful of books and chapbooks under your belt over the past fifteen years, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: In terms of changes, The Revolutionary (Albion Books, 2022) was a departure for me in two ways: it was autobiographical and, unlike other books and chapbooks, which took a while to write and even longer to be published, The Revolutionary was written in a short amount of time and published directly after it was written, during (and partially about) my father’s illness, and after his death in 2022. Crocosmia is my focus at the moment. I have been collaborating on an epistolary piece with Rick Moody, a kind of correspondence of short essays. I don’t know where that will wind up, but I do know I’d like to do more collaborations of all kinds on and beyond the page.

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

A: I can’t help but circle back to and refind Etel Adnan, Cesar Aira, Alexander Kluge, Bob Glück, Thalia Field, Renee Gladman, Michael Eigen, Lisa Robertson, Cecilia Vicuña, Shahrnush Parsipur, Lorraine Daston, Giorgia Agamben, Walter Benjamin, Knausgard, Kafka, Lacan, and lately Alejandro Zambra. Along with tarot and the I-Ching, over the years I dip in and out of The Shaman’s Body, by Arnold Mindell, a kind of handbook. I find his articulation of the ‘second attention’ helpful in all kinds of ways. Most recently I read, with great pleasure, About Ed by Bob Glück, City of Incurable Women by Maud Casey, and Glacial Decoys by Luke Roberts. As far as essays, Patricia Lockwood and Jenny Diski are particular favorites.

For research for Crocosmia, most recently I’ve been reading Psychosomatic: Feminism and the Neurological Body, by Elizabeth A. Wilson, Nomad Century: How Climate Migration Will Reshape Our World by Gaia Vince, Hexen 2039 by Suzanne Treister, and various writings by Suzanne Simard, Isabelle Stengers, and Karen Barad. An article on fulminology (the study of the science of lightning) and various readings on ecological remediation and cooperativism have been useful.

Friday, September 29, 2023

TtD supplement #248 : seven questions for Meghan Kemp-Gee

Meghan Kemp-Gee is the author of The Animal in the Room (Coach House Books, 2023), What I Meant to Ask: A Chapbook (Alien Buddha Press, 2022) and The Bones and Eggs and Beets (Small Harbor Editions, forthcoming), as well as a chapbook forthcoming with above/ground press. She also co-created Contested Strip, the world’s best comic about ultimate frisbee (and soon to be a graphic novel). She is a PhD candidate at UNB Fredericton and lives in North Vancouver. You can find her on Twitter @MadMollGreen.

Her poems “Blanket,” “Bike Lock,” “Ice Packs,” “Plane Ticket,” “Winter Coat” and “New Clothes” appear in the thirty-eight issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “Blanket,” “Bike Lock,” “Ice Packs,” “Plane Ticket,” “Winter Coat” and “New Clothes.”

A: I wrote these early in September 2021. I remember sitting in a wooden chair on the front porch of my AirBnB during a sudden late-summer rainstorm. I’d just arrived in Fredericton to start my PhD program at UNB. I’d just biked back across the river from campus. I was excited to be there, but I was also completely bewildered, stressed out, and lonely. I didn’t really know anyone in New Brunswick yet. I’d never even been there before! I didn’t know where I was going to live yet, because I’d just moved from Los Angeles to Vancouver to Nanaimo to Vancouver to Fredericton in less than six months, so I was pretty tired of packing up and moving and unpacking. I was reading Phyllis Webb’s “Naked Poems” for Triny Finlay’s poetry class. Reading great poetry always inspires me to write! I don’t know exactly why, but Webb’s work made me want to write something simple, straightforward, just to get my thoughts straight, and that’s where this “Things to Buy in New Brunswick” got its start: inspired by my big list of things I had to buy to replace the stuff I’d left behind in LA or North Vancouver. Looking back, I think that big list of things to buy was my way of itemizing the big leap of faith it takes to land in a brand new place and start all over again.

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

A: I just finished writing a big manuscript called Nebulas about astronomy and afterlives, and right now I’m composing some poems about famous athletes. So these “New Brunswick” poems contrast sharply with those in terms of topic and scope – they’re a lot more personal, intimate, and “small” by comparison with a nebula or a celebrity athlete! But I think there are definitely some prose techniques I’m trying out in these poems that I’m continuing to use and develop in all my work. In general, I really enjoy how prose forms contrast with formal elements like repetition and reversal, rhyme and meter. If you do it right, I think you can create interesting tensions between visual and aural forms!

Q: I’ve always considered, at least in my own work, visual placement to be notational: that if I wish for something to be read or sound a particular way, then it requires a particular placement upon the page (whereas jwcurry has argued as notation as being far more fluid). What is your approach or consideration for how things are placed upon the page, and subsequently read aloud and/or heard?

Honestly, this is a question that I feel I haven’t fully resolved yet. I think my visual poetic practice is still very much in development, catching up to my own knowledge and theories about the relationship between sound and image.

Over a year ago, I was taking a poetry class with Sue Sinclair and some outstanding creative writers at UNB. It was probably the best writing workshop I’ve ever been part of; it was a small class full of outstanding poets who also happened to be wonderful, friendly, supportive people and brilliant, brilliant readers. I remember one particular moment where the other students were discussing a single line from one of my poems. They were noting the fact that this was the longest line in the poem, and analyzing that. And I was sitting there, thinking “What the heck are they talking about? It’s exactly the same length as all the others.” But then I realized: they’re not talking about the length the way *I* think about line length. They’re not counting feet or syllables. They’re responding to the line visually.

And I’m so grateful for experiences like that, because they really challenge how I was schooled as a poetry reader and poetry writer, and they challenge my own biases as someone who (like you) thinks of visual elements more as “notation” for the primary purpose of the poem, which is to work through sound.

That was a valuable reality check for me, not just because it’s good to be aware of how differently different readers read our work. It’s also a good reality check because in my teaching life, I’m keenly interested in the theory of image/text, and how different kinds of composition work as multimodal texts. When I’ve taught multimodal composition and visual composition in college classes, I always encourage my students to think about how texts produce meaning visually. But as a poet who’s actively publishing in all kinds of journals, for practical reasons, I feel I have to actively not-think about those considerations a bit. Poets generally get at least a little bit of input about how our work is presented and laid out on the page, but ultimately there are going to be visual and design elements you’re not in charge of – or at least that are going to be determined in collaboration with your editors, printers, etc.

In the future, I think I’ll be a lot more interested in composing more multimodal forms, including visual poetry. A few months ago I wrote a chapbook that’s kind of a mashup between sound poetry, erasure poetry, and fuzzy photocopies of old manuscripts; I’m still a beginner doing work like that, but I loved it and I’d like to try more!

So this is all just to say that... I genuinely struggle with this question! I think I’m still evolving, and I have more to learn. I have a pretty strong sense that my poetic practice has yet to catch up to my theories about pedagogy, composition, and multimodality. But I don’t know what that “catching up” is eventually going to look like.

Q: You give the impression that you compose in clusters or projects, whether as chapbook-length or larger manuscripts. How do you approach composition? Are you a poet of individual pieces that collaborate to form larger structures, or are you a poet of larger structures from the get-go?

A: I used to be very poem-focused. I loved the idea of each individual poem as a perfect, self-contained unit. And I still like that! It’s one of the things I love most about reading poetry, especially short poems – the way that you can walk into a poem and shut the door, like it’s a perfect little room.

While I'm still interested in reading and writing single poems like that, I have become more interested in groups and sequences. I think it all started with The Animal in the Room, actually. In the second year of my MFA at Chapman University I had an idea to write a few poems about deer, and then the whole collection just spontaneously grew all these branches and new directions and limbs from there. Once I’d written that way once, I wanted to do it again! And I also learned a lot from the process of editing The Animal in the Room. In our first convo about the manuscript, my editor Susan Holbrook made this amazing suggestion to add a few more prose poems to the collection, so that they could act as a connective tissue.

When I wrote another full-length manuscript last year, I was very intentional about that strategy – weaving and interrupting and reweaving sequences and connections throughout. I like the word “intertextual,” meaning poems that connect with each other, both within a collection and beyond. Collage, braiding, cut-and-paste, mosaic, clouds and nebulas – those composition metaphors really inspire me right now!

Q: With a full-length collection and two chapbooks under your belt, as well as your current work(s)-in-progress, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you feel your work headed?

A: Since completing my MFA in 2017, I think that my work has been trending towards longer sequences – chapbook-length and full-length collections. That’s a bit funny and ironic for me, because I really define myself as a “short-form” kind of poet! But maybe I am growing towards being more of a longer-form type of person, and I’m open to that growth. No matter what I’m writing, I really believe that you have to listen to the poems and let them guide you where they want to go – they’re always smarter and more interesting than you are. So I’m going to keep trying to do that.

I’ve recently read a couple of novels-in-verse that really dazzled me, including DA Lockhart’s awesome Bearmen Descend Upon Gimli. I’ve started to wonder, could I try to write something like this? Maybe someday?

Q: You seem very interested in examining the boundaries of genre and form, whether from within or between. What drives, or even sparked, this interest?

A: I won’t say that form is everything to me as a poet... but it might be pretty close to everything. I think that form was one of the main reasons I originally wanted to write poetry. I’ve always found great satisfaction in the crafty, technical, physical part of writing, whether it’s the puzzles and miraculous surprises you find in received forms, or whether it’s leaning into your formal structures to try to invent something new or pleasing.

In terms of “borders,” I think that forms by definition have borders. Forms require something to demarcate space, time, and sound – and even when you don't choose those structures, they have a way of choosing themselves, of choosing you! In my practice, I think all poetry – whether you want to call it “formal” or not – is about pushing against a border, or tenderly caressing one, or trying to locate one, or destroy one. Once you’re in contact or friction with one of those borders, you can do whatever you want with it – obey it, avoid it, put your shoulder against it, bend it, break it.

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

A: There are several poets and several books that just can’t fail to inspire me and get me writing. I’ve never read “Song of Myself” without wanting to write something about it afterwards. Glück’s The Wild Iris is definitely another one like that, and Rankine’s Citizen is another. But I think statistically the all-time champ for me is Elizabeth Bishop. So many of my poems are about her poems, trying to talk to her, asking her questions. A buddy and I used to joke about painting our nails to match the cover of her Complete Works. I feel like there’s about a million new poems I could write hidden in that book.

Monday, September 25, 2023

TtD supplement #247 : seven questions for Samuel Amadon

Samuel Amadon is the author of Often, Common, Some, And Free and Listener. He is the director of the MFA Program at the University of South Carolina, where, with Liz Countryman, he edits the poetry journal Oversound.

His five poems, each titled “DIVERS,” appear in the thirty-eighth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the five “DIVERS” poems.

A: These five “Divers” are five of sixty sonnets I wrote and rewrote between 2016 and 2022. They follow some of the rules. They aren’t in pentameter, but they stick to a decasyllabic line and they rhyme, but not in a pattern. Days and seasons are their subject matter, and they were written during a period when I only had brief moments in the day to write or to rewrite, and so the strangeness of tracking time passing gets mixed up with their composition.

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

A: In my 2020 book Listener, I really started playing around with hard rhyme and an omni-present “I” voice. I had this idea about a speaker who is so present that they become like a screen or a background for the poems to play through. These “Divers” poems feel to me like an escalation of the work I was doing in that book. I say “escalation” because the constraints of the form—the size of the line and the sonnet and the need to turn it—go along with what I was already doing with the speaker.

Q: I’m intrigued at the structure of individual poems in a project that each share the same title. The late Canadian poet John Newlove composed a handful of poems each called “Autobiography,” and I know it was a structure the late Denver poet Noah Eli Gordon appeared repeatedly throughout numerous full-length titles. What do you consider the relationship between the poems in this project, presuming the entire sixty sonnets share a title? What do you feel is possible through the structure that wouldn’t be possible otherwise?

A: I made a number of radical revisions to the whole manuscript. For instance, I decided on a decasyllabic line after I’d written two thirds of the sonnets, and had to go back through and revise them to make that work. I kept making small changes globally like that, and at one point, I went through and re-titled every poem with a different title. I liked the titles a lot, but I felt like with the same title throughout, the sonnets were more dependent on each other to create a larger meaning and narrative to the manuscript.

Q: Do you have any specific models for the kinds of work you’ve been attempting lately?

A: I read lots of sonnets while I was working on this. I had piles of books around the chair where I write, and when I went to write, I’d read sonnets until I felt ready to write one. I think the poems reflect that reading. Largely in ways I couldn’t say exactly, but occasionally I would take a phrase, like “since there’s no help,” which is from a sonnet by Michael Drayton. I like trying to play with language like that as a kind of texture. I guess a lot of the reading I did was trying to find that kind of texture as a feeling in my own voice. I don’t know if that makes sense.

Q: What is it about the form of the sonnet that attracts?

A: I’ve been interested in the form for a long time, and I think it’s the turn initially that made me want to write sonnets. There’s a mix of constraint and recklessness, I think, built into the volta, which is a combination I find appealing. And I like working within the limited space of a sonnet for similar reasons (and the form just suited the constraints of my writing life over the six years when I wrote this book, where I had very little time to work, and between the pandemic, teaching, administrative responsibilities, my kids, and everything else, it was helpful to have a poem I could work out, initially, in one sitting).

Q: With a handful of published books, as well as your current work-in-progress, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: The Hartford Book, the first book I wrote, was a collection of narrative poems about my hometown and my screwed up friends. The book had a distinctive voice and style that I didn’t want to limit myself to, and after I wrote it, I actively tried to write in new ways, to see how I could get away from myself. The result was Like a Sea, a book full of experiment, polyvocality, and some constraint based writing. I set myself up on a pattern there, where each book I’ve written since has been in some way a reinvention of my work and a response to what I’ve done before. I doubt anyone else is tracking my books this way—especially since they haven’t come out in chronological order—but it’s helpful for me to think of things this way. I’m just starting to think about what I’m going to do next. I have a couple things I’m thinking about, but not really in a way that I can spell out at this point.

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

A: I read around a lot, and my interests, generally, tend to expand. Yesterday, I read Larry Levis’s first book Wrecking Crew, just because I realized I’ve never gone past the selected and Elegy and I was curious to see where he started. Next, I’ve got a stack of books from Nightboat that came in recently that I’m excited to look at. I go back to Ashbery, to Crane, to my late teacher Lucie Brock-Broido, to Ed Roberson, to Keats and a bunch more. I try to add stuff to what I’m teaching, but inevitably, I end up teaching some of the same poems semester after semester, because they’re useful for talking through some point. Then in my reading for myself and for my own work, I find myself drawn to things that are hard to break down and talk about in those ways or books that I, at least, don’t know what to say about yet.

Friday, September 15, 2023

TtD supplement #246 : seven questions for R Kolewe

R. Kolewe has published four collections of poetry, A Net of Momentary Sapphire (Talonbooks, 2023), The Absence of Zero (Book*hug, 2021), Inspecting Nostalgia (Talonbooks, 2017), and Afterletters (Book*hug, 2014) as well as several chapbooks. He lives in Toronto.

His poems “First, natural thoughts with natural diction.,” “A sort of a song, too.,” “The local shaped by kilometres of ice, kilometres of road.,” “In more deep seclusion.,” “Saturated with glorious colour.,” “Beginning with grammar.” and “And their ways are fill’d with thorns.” appear in the thirty-eighth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “First, natural thoughts with natural diction.,” “A sort of a song, too.,” “The local shaped by kilometres of ice, kilometres of road.,” “In more deep seclusion.,” “Saturated with glorious colour.,” “Beginning with grammar.” and “And their ways are fill’d with thorns.”

A: The raw material of these poems dates back to 2015, when I was preparing to walk the Coast to Coast trail in England for the first time. I was starting to think about “landscape/poetry” which is both immensely generative and the site of a million cliches and cliched echoes of a million critiques of extraction capitalism etc etc. Anyway I started filling a small A6 pocket notebook with poem-scribbles, intending to take the notebook with me on my walk, which I did. (Was I thinking about Basho? Not at the time.) As often happens I didn’t write much at all on that walk (I was ill, and had to cut the walk short) and when I got home I switched to a larger A5 notebook, continuing to make notes and put words to that theme. That eventually led to some poems in the Literary Review of Canada, a talk on the Canadian landscape painter Doris McCarthy, and a chapbook called silence, then published by Knife | Fork | Book in 2019. I put the small notebook aside, and eventually tore out the pages I’d filled and put them in a file folder together with the drafts and versions of the chapbook and related stuff. My intention was to go further with this material but I was also working on what became The Absence of Zero (Book*hug 2021) and A Net of Momentary Sapphire (Talonbooks 2023) so ...

When the editorial work on Sapphire wrapped up in 2022 for a while I felt like I was done with poetry. For the first time in years I didn't have another poetry project on the go, although I was writing. “Maybe I’ve driven the poetry bus as far as it will go,” I said to someone. But then I remembered that that old “landscape/poetry” thing had never really been finished, while the other thing I’d been busy with seemed to be pointing to a sort of “conversation in the mountains” (but nothing like Celan’s short story). I’d also been working through Shohaku Okumura's commentary on the 13th century Japanese Zen master Dogen’s essay “Mountains and Waters Sutra,” which has an appendix by Gary Snyder on the connection between Dogen and Mountains and Rivers Without End, Snyder’s long poem sequence. All of that led me to dig out my old notes, and I found the little bundle of A6 pages from 2015.

So these seven poems are rooted in what I scribbled back in 2015. But that doesn’t tell you about the individual poems themselves. Should I go on?

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

A: The work I’ve published in the past few years has been what I like to call “recombinant,” that is, constructed by taking a source text (all those notebooks, all those citations) and cutting it up into “good” lines and/or verses, and recombining those using some algorithmic chance procedure. So in a way it’s very formal. The Absence of Zero is 256 16-line (four quatrain) pieces (plus stuff), while A Net of Momentary Sapphire is made of 9-line (three tercet) pieces in blocks of 40, except that sometimes tercets are erased. (One part is just 40 tercets.) The quatrains in Absence and the tercets in Sapphire repeat, though not exactly, and not regularly, and the effect, especially when read aloud and at length, can be quite trance-like. Unfortunately these things resist excerpting, though that's less so of the last part of Sapphire, which I’m sure some people will simply read as a group of 40 9-line poems, some of which are better than others.

These new poems aren’t like that. They’re certainly citational (google some of the titles and phrases in quotes, look up “trivium” and “quadrivium”) but not at all formal. And the source text is tiny so there’s not enough there to recombine. After writing in the constrained, algorithmic, style of the last two books, these felt very liberating. You could even call them “free verse.” [insert grinning cat emoji 😸 or something]  Another difference is that the lines in these poems tend to be quite short in comparison to those books, except for the “Wild Fox” section of Absence.

As for the subject matter... Well, it’s hard to talk about what poems are about. They perform what they’re about. These poems share the philosophical perspective of Absence and Sapphire, if that's not too weighty a thing to say about seven short pieces, grounded in quantum mechanics and the Mādhyamaka school of Buddhist philosophy. Sometimes I think I’m just trying to rewrite the Heart Sutra again and again. And failing. I think all of these poems are fundamentally about looking at the world and seeing and saying “it really is broken, isn’t it, and we broke it and there's no fixing it now, but my god some of the pieces are beautiful.” Walking through the English Lake District I kept thinking, you know, this is actually a sort of post-industrial deforested overgrazed hellscape. All those abandoned slate mines. Let's read “Tintern Abbey” again, from that perspective.

(I’m trying to figure out if I could have read Stephen Collis’ wonderful “Reading Wordsworth in the Tar Sands” before I scribbled on those few A6 pages. I know I saw it before he published Once in Blockadia in 2016 but I don’t remember when or where. I certainly hadn’t seen “Home at Grasmere” which is also in that book. That great quote from Malcolm Lowry that heads it off! Obviously I read all those poems long before arriving at the “final” versions of these seven poems in late 2022, not that there’s any direct connection. Maybe I’m on a trajectory towards some kind of ecopoetics. But now I’m rambling. Which is exactly what I’d do if we were actually talking, come think of it.)

Q: What brought you to exploring through recombination? I know we first encountered each other during Margaret Christakos’ legendary Influency workshops, but was it something in that workshop that prompted this particular interest? As well, what do you feel that exploring through constraint allows that might not be possible otherwise?

A: I’d forgotten that we met through Influency! I’ve thought that if anybody comes to write a history of poetry in English Canada, well, Toronto anyway, in the 2010s, Influency would loom large. A number of really good poets came up through those seminars, Liz Howard most prominent among them. Margaret Christakos’ commitment to community and collaboration in poetry isn’t appreciated enough, nor are her own writings. She’s incredibly innovative and original and I keep learning new things from her work.

That said, I’m not sure the thing I’ve been calling recombination comes out of Influency, at least directly. I do remember being introduced to procedural poetics of various sorts in the course of those seminars so maybe that’s a source, but a more proximate source is John Cage. I may have said this elsewhere, but I will repeat myself. Or, to put it differently, I will repeat myself here. It will be a lengthy digression on how Absence and Sapphire evolved, so maybe it should be a footnote? Whatever.

[Insert stuff here that might be a long footnote, assuming I can find the text I wrote for something else a while back and never used... The problem with writing in notebooks is that they're hard to search!]

Constraint comes in so many shapes and sizes. Sometimes it’s procedural, like Raymond Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes, sometimes it’s about limiting vocabulary, like Gregory Betts or Sonnet L’Abbe’s very different takes on Shakespeare in The Others Rais’d In Me and Sonnet’s Shakespeare, or Jordan Abel’s Injun, or the auto-erasures in David Bradford’s I Dream Only of Myself… I think Jacques Roubaud says somewhere that whatever constraint or procedure you use, unless the constraint or procedure somehow serves the overall theme of the work it really amounts to little more than a parlour game. Of course sometimes parlour games are fun, but that’s the difference between George Perec’s La disparation (which does not use the letter e) and Christian Bök’s volume of lipograms, Eunoia: in Perec, the absence means something.

Something that constraint gives you is freedom from worrying how a work will cohere, because coherence can be generated by the constraint. Of course the constraint needs to be designed to do that. This also means some of the meaning of the work is performed by the constraint.

I’m not sure that  answers your question, but it’s a start.

Q: With a handful of published books and chapbooks over the past decade or so, how do you feel your work has progressed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: Four books and three chapbooks since 2014: it doesn’t seem that much. But it’s a hefty pile of pages, I suppose. Although my first book, Afterletters, has some coherence, being engaged with the correspondence of Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann, both it and my second book, Inspecting Nostalgia, are pretty much just a bunch of poems each. (I guess this is called a “collection.”) The last two books, on the other hand, are more formally structured wholes. (Two of the chapbooks are extracts from these.) So if there’s a progress over the past almost-decade it’s from thinking in terms of individual poems (which might be thematically related) to a book-length thing. Another development is that, while I’ve always revised a lot, I’m now revising a lot more. This is both good and bad: I think the work is more polished, but it takes longer.

Where am I headed? I like the idea of large-scale structure, and I like the open-endedness and sort of undecidability of poems (at least the kind I write) but I also find myself craving a kind of density of language and idea that I’m not sure works in poetry. Maybe that means long-form prose. On the other hand I’m also tempted to go in the opposite direction: short, unstructured but interrelated poems, maybe a series of chapbooks... (I think that’s the ghost of the serial poem raising its head again.) There’s also that “landscape/poetry” thing still tugging at me, of which the seven poems in Touch the Donkey we started with are a manifestation. As I said, maybe a kind of ecopoetics: if it has an overall structure I can’t see it yet. Some kind of fractal probably.

It might sometimes sound like I have everything planned out ahead of time but it’s not like that at all.  There’s a fair bit of contingency, let’s try this and see if it goes anywhere, in my approach to writing: I have lots of files of stuff that once seemed like a good idea and eventually ran aground. At least three books worth.

If I had more energy I’d also be writing reviews. I’ve joked about poetry being a write-only medium, and the much-lamented lack of “review culture” is part of that. True, it feels slightly hypocritical to encourage others to write reviews and at the same time say I don’t have the energy to do so myself, but, it would be good not just to have more reviews, and not only of the hot new debuts and award-winners, but also retrospective reviews. A lot of good work vanishes. A lot of work takes a while to understand and appreciate. Etc.

Q: It might seem moving backwards through the trajectory of our discussion, but where does a poem, and subsequently a manuscript, begin for you?

A: Usually the kernel is a phrase. “A parallel text, I said” is one such, that may or may not be the beginning of something in one notebook. Where does the phrase come from? I don’t often receive dictation from angelic orders, but sometimes phrases do just appear. Sometimes they’re mishearings or misreadings. Sometimes they are actual quotations. I remember reading somewhere the advice to keep a notebook of good lines, but never to make note of where they’re from, and then just appropriate those fragments of text. “File an observation until its context is lost, then treat it as a found object.” I do that, but I keep track of sources. Most of the time, anyway. (M. John Harrison, in his “anti-memoir” Wish I Was Here, excerpted somewhere or other, in this case.)

Then once there’s a pile of proto-poems, that might suggest a form or a theme or a coherence. At least that’s how it worked until recently. Now I have a few idea clusters that I'm writing towards, but there are still seed phrases at the core of it all.

Nevertheless “inspiration” is unreliable. A more dependable beginning is often just to write down the date, time and place with some notation of the weather, interior and exterior. Right now, for example, I’m sitting at my desk just after 3pm, it’s more or less sunny, the sky is a sort of uniform pale illuminated haze, I’m tired but feeling more or less content, enjoying the more or less quiet afternoon.

I’m actually wondering whether it’s really possible to identify the definite beginnings of poems or manuscripts beyond the trace of words on the page. And what if you didn’t make note of the date and time you began to write, everytime you wrote? Yes, I know there are people who work exactly that way.

More? This could go on for a while!

Q: You’ve mentioned that you don’t have time, despite the interest, to write critical prose, but does that suggest that everything you write and think falls, instead, into the poems? Do your book-length projects exist as a kind of “catch-all” for your thinking?

A: Not so much a question of time, as of energy and focus. I’m extremely fortunate to have been able to retire from full-time work at a relatively young age, so, given that I have no family obligations, time is something I have lots of. The dark side of that bright picture is that although the mental health issues which were part of my motivation for early retirement have largely receded (even if pandemic isolation did resurrect some demons) I just don’t have the energy, concentration and focus I had when I was in my 30s or 40s. Where I used to be able to spend 12 or more hours a day writing code or designing software or reading physics papers and even occasionally scratching at a poem, now I’m lucky if I can manage 3 or 4 hours a day of sustained concentration, and that not every day. I’m also really bad at context switching, so I have to focus on one thing during those concentrated hours, whether it’s writing or reading stuff that requires real thought: constant mental triage. It’s frustrating, because I’d very much like to be doing more than I am, such as, for instance, writing critical prose. And it also leaves me in awe of people who can work full-time, raise a family, write substantial stuff, edit, read, etc, and still find time to watch Succession or whatever. That seems completely impossible to me. Outside my focussed time for the most part I read what I call “the news” — stuff like the G&M, the LRB, or the FT (on the internet, which sure doesn’t help with maintaining focus) — and novels, though more and more often I’ll read 50 pages of a novel one evening and then, when I go back to the book the next day, have to read 20 pages of those 50 again, before getting any further. (When I was young I would read a novel in a day! I did that recently with a compelling but ultimately disappointing SF novel. I was up until 4am. Felt like crap the next day.)

I don’t read nearly as much poetry as I used to, and most of what I read these days is old stuff. Same with novels, actually. Although I still haven't finished Middlemarch.

All that said, does everything I write and think wind up in the poems? Hardly. I have to resist the urge to cram everything in: the result of doing that is likely to be too diffuse, and I think poetry needs to be focussed while at the same time open-ended. What this means is that I often find myself wanting to include something, and then deciding it’s just too much: use this later, I tell myself. An example of this is how, while working on The Absence of Zero, I got really interested in current approaches to quantum gravity and thought some of those ideas might be useful in that book. Nope. Maybe in some future book. One of the reasons I’m more and more interested in extended prose is that I think you might be able to fit more into that sort of container, but that may be wishful thinking. Another consequence of trying to resist the draw of the “book containing everything” is that I compartmentalize ideas into projects: the landscape/poetry thing, the quantum ghost city thing (!),  the Donne thing, etc etc. Of course there’s one or more notebooks for each of those, the theory being that it’s easier to focus when writing by hand, but maybe it’s just that I have a notebook fetish. Along with a fountain pen fetish of course. Perhaps also mechanical pencils.

Getting back to critical prose, obviously that isn't one of the things I’ve been including in the poetry I’ve been writing, despite the urge to make the poems encyclopedic. (The closest I get is a line in Sapphire about a new book by Lyn Hejenian, and that’s not very close.) Most books of contemporary poetry (I’m looking at the stack of books I bought at the book launches I’ve been to in the past few weeks) can easily be read in an hour at most, but that’s bound to be a superficial read. To really see what the poet is up to you’ve got to read and reread, pay attention to the sound of the poems (read aloud!) trace down any references explicit or implicit that might be there, in other words study the book. Of course it’s possible there’s not much there to study. But if there is, and you’re not going to write a critical piece about the book, how would this show up, say, in a poem you’re writing? A kind of intertextual hommage maybe. That’s definitely something I do, though I’ve never thought of it in those terms. This may be something I need to think about some more. Essay poems? Phil Hall has done that. But that’s not what I'm getting at, I think.

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

A: I look at the stacks of unread books that surround me and in a moment of panic I say Reread?!? What are you thinking??? And while I keep track of what I read I’ve just noticed that I don’t keep track of what I reread. I should change that. I do reread. A lot. But it occurs to me that the books I return to are mostly prose.

What does that mean for a poet I wonder?

There are three essays (for want of a better term) by the 13th century Japanese Zen master Eihei Dogen that I’ve been going back to since I first encountered them 30+ years ago: Uji (“Being-Time”), Sansuikyō (“Mountains and Rivers Sutra”) and Genjōkōan (one of those impossible multivalent portmanteau coinages Dogen is famous for: one translation has it as “Actualizing the Fundamental Point” (???) but most just leave it as is, with extensive commentary explaining or trying to explain the word). Do I understand Dogen? Not at all, but perhaps slightly better than I once didn’t. I find his language and thought endlessly generative.

Then there’s Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves, but is it a novel or a poem? It certainly doesn’t have a plot, but, again, language, language, language. With no translators harmed in the process. And in the past few years I’ve been spending a lot of time with Samuel R Delany’s early SF novel Nova and Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, both of which I’ve been reading and rereading for 50 years, as well as Jacques Roubaud’s ‘le grande incendie de londres’, which I first encountered in 2004 or so, in the English translation of the first volume. Each of those are energizing in different ways: Roubaud for the audacity of his structural conception and how it allows him to work through his deep grief over his wife’s sudden death and then, over the subsequent decades, closely observe the functioning of his memory; Mann not so much for using a variation on the Faust legend to write about Germany’s embrace of Nazi evil (it’s a very obvious analogy) but for the subtlety with which he does it, and then, when you learn a bit about Mann’s own life and begin to realize that significant parts of the book verge on autofiction, it all shifts again; and Delany, telling a simple, old, story but there’s not a word or a scene out of place, and you know every word in every sentence is there for a reason, ok, maybe the prose is a bit baroque at times (which I may be less enamoured of now than I was when I was 15) but I still haven’t tired of it. Also the 1968 hardcover I have with its psychedelic pink and green tarot cover [I should take a picture] (by Russel FitzGerald, a friend of Delany’s who was peripherally associated with the Spicer circle in San Francisco in the late 1950s) has a great interior design, with a really smart use of running heads. I’d love to write a book that used running heads that way!

Of course there are poets I reread, but sometimes I think it’s not so much about rereading as having read and reread and knowing that the books are there and I could read them again. Whether poetry or prose. This may be why I’m so attached to books as physical objects. I feel that way about Beckett and Joyce and Eliot and Rilke and William Carlos Williams and Doris Lessing and Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann and Louise Glück for example. Eirin Moure’s Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person (and Erín Moure’s O Resplandor). Lisa Robertson’s Cinema of the Present. Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette. And there are writers whose works were very important to me once, kind of a background hum of words, but then it occurs to me I haven’t actually read them in quite a while so I pick up some volume and it’s a rediscovery of wonders. In the past few years I’ve done that with Ursula K Le Guin and Vladimir Nabokov, most notably. Earthsea and Ada, oh my.

In a note at the end of Inspecting Nostalgia I said “no language stands alone.” All those books behind us... Not to mention the unread ones, or the ones in languages I can't even —

Maybe that’s a good place to stop.