Tuesday, January 31, 2023
Her sequence “W h a t i s t h i s” appears in the thirty-sixth issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about the sequence “W h a t i s t h i s.”
A: This is a poem expressing my interminable skepticism & ambiguity about what art or poetry can actually do, other than record, document or act as an inventory of the times, if they’re seeking to have any effect on, in this case, ecological disaster & its consequent displacements (Ai Wei Wei’s refugees life jackets). At best, some of the artists mentioned actually make art from recycled found materials. I’m not sure that the poem itself is of any use.
Q: How does this piece compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?
A: It’s very different in a way. Rather than describe artworks, or list artists I’d probably gesture towards them a bit more cryptically. I did want to ‘say something’ about the problem of a very defined wholesomeness in ethical yet often alluring artworks. There’s a kind of veil of righteousness that could be ripped through by rage or wild humour making work that’s impossible to hang in a corporate boardroom.
My other recent poems are less stable, more indefinite, as they traipse through the sidetracks of digital wilderness and everyday detritus.
Q: What prompted this particular shift to ‘say something’ in your work? You suggest that you aren’t sure that “the poem itself is of any use,” so the question becomes: what are you hoping to accomplish?
A: It wasn’t really a shift to ‘say something – the poems always do that. I meant that it was a more topical poem than I’d usually make.It was a reaction to a trend I’d noticed in visual art. Not a new trend but definitely an insistent one.
As for accomplishing anything, if your publication’s readers take something away from it then the poem might have found a function.
Q: You mention Ai Wei Wei: are there any other artists or writers you’ve looked at for the kinds of work you’ve been exploring lately?
A: Not specifically. Ai Wei Wei is a front page artist isn’t he? Visual art, performance, screen, poetry – all part of my outlook. In the past, I’ve taught in art schools (as a casual), worked in audio visual departments in art institutions as well as having different roles in ‘alternative’ (polite word for ‘oppositional to status quo mainstream’ art) or collective art venues like the Tin Sheds in Sydney and the Experimental art Foundation in Adelaide. Like many poets I know artists of varying kinds. That’s an enormous topic to talk about rob and I haven’t had breakfast yet.
Q: With numerous books and chapbooks over the years, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?
A: It’s difficult for me to sum up when or how my poetry writing has changed over the decades. Perhaps that’s up to somebody else to do. But there are points in time that I can look back at and see different turns, consolidations, change in style and even method. One instance could be that I used to think I aimed for ‘intelligibility’ in the poems. I had a lightbulb moment about that idea at some time in the 1990’s and decided not to worry about intelligibility. That was liberating. Poetry is thought of as a difficult art anyway so why chase after comprehension. I think the poem in Touch the Donkey, ‘W h a t i s t h i s', is pretty obvious. Other poems have become more fragmentary in the last decade. But I’ve also made things like sequences of twenty-eight line freely associated fake double sonnets.
I’m not sure where it’s all headed. Lines, images, bricolage accrue on A4 pages on the desktop file and need reassembling, compiling. There are also occasional notes I make in small notebooks to add to that. They work or they don’t and if the poem works it feels like a fortunate accident in spite of all the rearranging that’s occurred. I hope there’ll be some more chapbooks in my future.
Q: You seem to favour longer pieces, longer sequences; poems that accumulate to form a larger project or idea. What brought you to these particular forms?
A: Prompted by watching and reading news of the 2011 riots in England where disgruntled citizens rose up without a focused, central issue protest and smashed windows and looted shops and set fire to buildings, I wanted to write something situated in a place of ‘Worldlessness’. Somewhere where meaning is elusive or where it’s not easy to locate meaning in a life. But the situation in my poem is a place where it appears that nothing much happens. No consequent rioting. The poem doesn’t foreground a rationale or agenda and ends without fanfare or conclusion. It was called ‘Worldlessness’ (which some people mistook for ‘wordlessness’ – it being a poem). So that’s how I came to write longer and more fragmentary poems. One of my recent books, Click here for what we do, is a loosely-connected group of four longer poems.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: I have various favourites whose books I’ll re-read often – Etel Adnan, Jane Joritz-Nakagawa, Kim Hyesoon, Philip Terry, Chris Nealon, Anselm Berrigan and, from way back, James Schuyler. Locally, that is Australians, I am currently amazed by Emily Stewart, Tim Wright, Evelyn Araluen, Rebecca Jessen and Jake Goetz. I’ll always re-read poets like Ken Bolton, Gig Ryan, Ann Vickery, Greg McLaren, Kate Lilley, and I love experimenters – Toby Fitch, Chris Edwards, Amelia Dale, Amanda Stewart, A.J. Carruthers, Dave Drayton, Louis Armand etc. Of course, these kinds of lists are in flux and they’re worrying because I’m sure to leave a few friends out if I don’t make it an incredibly long list. I should say that I do get incentive for poetry from reading political aesthetics – Esther Leslie, Claudia Rankine, Franco Berardi and so on. Sometimes, in a small act of gratitude, I might borrow a line from all of the above.
Sunday, January 15, 2023
The thirty-sixth issue is now available, with new poems by Pam Brown, Kathy Lou Schultz, Shane Kowalski, Hilary Clark and Ted Byrne.
Eight dollars (includes shipping). My god! It‘s like you've known me all your life!
Tuesday, January 3, 2023
Stuart Ross is a writer, editor, writing teacher, and small press guerrilla living in Cobourg, Ontario. The recipient of the 2019 Harbourfront Festival Prize and the 2010 Relit Prize for Short Fiction, among others, Stuart is the author of over twenty books of poetry, fiction, and essays, including The Book of Grief and Hamburgers (ECW Press, 2022) and 70 Kippers: The Dagmar Poems (with Michael Dennis; Proper Tales Press, 2020). I Am Claude François and You Are a Bathtub, his third fiction collection, dropped from Anvil Press this past fall. Stuart has taught workshops in schools across the country and was Writer-in-Residence at Queen’s University and the University of Ottawa. His work has been translated into French, Norwegian, Slovene, Russian, Spanish, and Estonian. He occasionally blogs at bloggamooga.blogspot.ca.
His “10 TINY POEMS (26 January 2022)” appears in the thirty-fifth issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about “10 TINY POEMS (26 January 2022).”
A: “10 TINY POEMS (26 January 2022)” is part of a molasses-velocity project I began in November 2012. My intention is to write 100 sets of 10 poems, and so 1,000 poems altogether. I’m about a quarter of the way there. I keep promising myself I’ll start doing one every day or two, but life and having to pay the rent always get in the way of my good intentions. (Also my unhealthy obsession with reading the news.) My challenge to myself is that none of the poems in each set are connected to each other, though I have broken that rule twice now. The idea is that each of the 10 is a completely separate poem. As you can see, the number above each poem dictates the number of words in it. Each number has its own challenges. How can you make one word into a poem? (Ask Aram Saroyan.) How can you keep all the words interesting—and not just part of a single phrase—once you get to seven or so? I’m very proud of the 26 January 22 instalment, because I think each poem does something very different, and successfully.
Q: How do these poems compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?
A: Well, lately I’ve been working mostly on prose: personal essays and short stories, so there is little comparison. I have been writing the occasional poem, mostly during workshops I’m leading, but nothing as compressed as the pieces in any of the “10 TINY POEMS” installments. Though it is possible that my sensibility, or aspects of my sensibility, tone, personal quirks, appear in all of my writing. I’ll let others write their doomed theses on that.
Q: How easily are you able to move between genres? Do you see your fiction, non-fiction, and poetry as separate threads of your work or as different elements of a singular, ongoing project? How are you able to distinguish?
A: I see each of my projects as a discrete thing, though of course one’s life work is part of a broader project of artistic production. Moving between genres is effortless since each piece of writing naturally takes on the form it demands. Or else I go: I think I’ll write a poem. I think I’ll write a two-page story. But often it’s I think I’ll write something and see what emerges. Sometimes that something can’t easily be defined by genre. More and more, writers are feeling unconstrained by genre, though publishers have some catching up to do on that front.
Q: How does this particular project fit with your overall work? There’s an element to this project that feels akin to you wishing to work in a small, immediate way, comparable to the work of someone such as Nelson Ball, but in an ongoing way. What originally prompted this?
A: I’m a poet who likes to try a million different things. Which is why I will always be a very obscure poet. Well, that’s one of the reasons, anyway. As I said earlier, I was intrigued by the challenge of making viable poems that were one word, two words, three words long, etc. It’s a bit like problem-solving or doing word puzzles. I don’t think of these poems as being Nelson Ball-like in any way: mostly they are word-based rather than image-based in the way that Nelson’s poems are mostly image-based. I do like the fact that this is an ongoing, if irregularly so, project that I’ve been poking away at for a decade or so. And this ongoingness is in contrast to most of my other work, where I work pretty quickly.
Q: Well, it was said that folk paid attention to the work of London, Ontario, artist Greg Curnoe, in part, because they didn’t know what he was going to do next, so I would suggest there’s a great value to that element. Still: are there any unexpected elements you’re noticing through the ongoingness of this particular project?
A: It’s a project in which I have to resist falling into a schtick. To do that, I need to surprise myself. Do things with words that I haven’t done before. Maybe even do things with words that repel me. As I get further into the project, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep it vital, to create shifts and hairpin turns. I find it excruciating as I write, but often satisfying when I look back at the recent sets of 10 I’ve created. Of course, in the back of my mind: is anyone ever going to publish this entire book? Well, Book*hug recently published a 450+-page poetry book by R. Kolewe, so it’s not unprecedented. Either that or you’re going to have to do 10 more above/ground chapbooks of it!
Q: With countless books and chapbooks of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction over the past 4-plus years, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?
A: As I suggested earlier, I might be a laboratory technician more than a writer. I always want to experiment. But two different paths have emerged, and it’s interesting to me that they are happening simultaneously: more extreme experiment and more personal/autobiographical content. Usually not in the same pieces, though my recent essay/memoir, The Book of Grief and Hamburgers, was at the same time experimental and personal in a literal sense. The American cartoonist and satirist Al Capp used to say of his invention the Shmoo (an armless white blob that resembles a rotund bowling pin with whiskers) that they procreate so quickly that if two Shmoon (the plural) begin a 50-yard dash, the winner won’t have been born when the race began. That’s where I’m hoping my work will be headed.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: Charles North’s The Nearness of the Way You Look Tonight and Ron Padgett’s Toujours l’Amour are very important to me. (Really, all of their works are ones I go back to a lot when I need to remind myself of a reason to live. I also make their work part of my training for my annual New Year poem, where I write a poem on January 1 and immediately send it out to my 500 or so email contacts.) Dave McFadden’s work revitalizes me, brings me back to the excitement of being a 15-year-old poet, which was when I first found a book of his in a library in North York. Then there’s Emily Pettit, Alice Burdick, Samuel Beckett (especially his later short fictions), César Aira, Renee Gladman, B. S. Johnson. The list, as they say, whoever they are, goes on.