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.