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.