Monday, February 26, 2024

TtD supplement #257 : seven questions for Terri Witek

Terri Witek is the author of 8 previous full-length books of poems and many chapbooks: the most recent, Something’s Missing in This Museum, was published by Anhinga Press in 2023, with another, DOWN WATER STREET, imminent from above/ground press. Exit Island was a Florida Book Award medalist; The Rape Kit was the Slope Editions Prize 2018 winner, judged by Dawn Lundy Martin. Martin calls The Rape Kit “a grand success, the best we’ll get. Fresh, relevant, and heartbreaking” and “a fire in the throat of a culture that has no appropriate language for rape and its aftermath…”

Witek’s visual poetics work is featured in JUDITH: Women Making Visual Poetry (2021), and in the WAAVe Global Gallery of Women’s Asemic Writing and Visual Poetry (2021) as well as in arts venues. The poet’s collaborations with Brazilian visual artist Cyriaco Lopes (cyriacolopes.com) have, since 2005, been shown nationally and internationally: in New York, Seoul, Miami, Lisbon, Valencia (Spain) and Rio de Janeiro. The duo have been represented by The Liminal gallery in Valencia: their most recent collaboration was featured at ARCO, Madrid (2023) where the Liminal won special jury mention. Since 2011, collaborations with new media artist Matt Roberts (mattroberts.com) often use augmented reality technology and have been featured in Matanza (Colombia), Lisbon, Glasgow, Vancouver, and Miami. Recent collaborative work with poet Amaranth Borsuk loops the pandemic and the eco-crisis as a crisis of rain and smoke between worlds; that with weaver Paula Damm combines text/textile. Individual and collaborative work has been featured in a wide variety of text venues, including Fence, The Colorado Review, Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, American Poetry Review, Poetry, Slate, Hudson Review, Lana Turner, The New Republic, and many other journals and anthologies.  

With Cyriaco Lopes, Witek team-teaches Poetry in the Expanded Field in Stetson University’s low-residency MFA of the Americas; they also run The Fernando Pessoa Game as faculty in the summer Disquiet International Literary Program in Lisbon. Witek holds the university’s Sullivan Chair in Creative Writing and is the recipient of both the McInery Award and the John Hague Award for teaching. terriwitek.com

Her poems “Foot Sons,” “Cash Sons,” “Package Sons,” “Insider Suns” and “Wreck Sons” appear in the fortieth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “Foot Sons,” “Cash Sons,” “Package Sons,” “Insider Suns” and “Wreck Sons.”

A: First of all, thanks for bringing these “double son” poems into space and air, rob!  You are really a nexus of interesting people and poems, and I’m happy to have somehow found my way into your company.   

Anyone from a big Catholic family like mine knows about multiples—the clothes handed through years of siblings, the matched sets, the confusion with names.  As a parent of two very cute small girls (and older kids too), I’m sure you too marvel at how by pairing —as with any ‘rhyme’—you are seduced by similarity into the pleasure of proliferating differences: how could these two things have sprung from the same dna—of language or people?

In my case, putting dead son and live son into the same poems lets a pair remix in perhaps the way my own children’s DNA stays in my body. In my book BODY SWITCH one dead boy (the suicide) is stiff and hieratic: I needed a more fun dead sib to liven things up. That one critiques various wars on boys. But here by bringing the live son and dead son into parity—at the beach, in a taxi, etc. they both can be on the move—they get to talk, to disagree, to slant their eyes at me in similar fashion. It was a relief and a great pleasure to write these poems. I am happy to be the one in the back seat digging in a purse for the right change.

And technically, of course, multiples offer a way to make motion when you have as little narrative skill as I have. That we all stay on the move (even if dead, even in disaster) offers a brief equity, too.

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

A: Thanks for asking this. I have been sorting the double sons into a larger universe and while I started off thinking the kids would stay together, now I’m weaving three different kinds of poems into the mix. One group steps down into tombs as I did last summer with visual artist Cyriaco Lopes in Etruscan Italy (especially Tarquinia): those poems are tiny. Little skinny steps. The third group are 14-liners about the future, spurred by a student’s anguished question. Weirdly these different modes seem to tolerate glancing against/touching noses with each other so far—now I call them all tomb pombs.

But really that's just one thing. Cyriaco and I are longterm collaborators and we are currently making little text-image combos to drop into the ad section of my local weekly newspaper—we’re sending each other 5 images then adding /altering each other’s images with text. Amaranth Borsuk and I are just starting to try a video collab that stands next to our dystopian ms W / \ SH, which you were kind to include part of in your chap series. And Cyriaco and I have 2 new little vids, one made with Urayoán Noel at our winter MFA residency—we hardly slept!

I’d have to have a bigger cloud for an eye to say exactly what all these have to do with the double sons, but my sense is that like these dear friends, the double sons somehow work as collaborators too.  

Q: What first brought you to working these collaborations? And what do you find possible with collaborative work that might not have been possible otherwise? How do you see your collaborative efforts, as well, affecting your solo work?

A: When I was 4 and my family had just moved into a new house, a boy (also 4!) showed up at the door and asked my mom if the little girl inside could come out and play. His dad was a roofer, and we walked down an alley to a huge pile of sand.  Eventually a garage door opened to rolls of tarpaper/stacks of shingles. All much taller than we were.  I was like “what IS this stuff?” That’s one of the joys of collaboration—weird materialities beckon. Plus the combo of intimacy and practicality that’s often the best part of any relationship. Plus miracles, as when I met Cyriaco in Central Florida for the first time and confessed (very hesistantly) to writing about Ariadne and he said—I’VE JUST BEEN TO HER HOUSE. He was still tan from Knossos!  

I’m from a small school in a small town and hanging out with the arts people is definitely my mo. When Katie Baczeski said ‘interact with an animal/not a domestic one’ I ended up thinking about eggs and Clarice Lispector. Not at all on my daily planner. Videoing chickens eating a line from Clarice in seed corn (egg, you are perfect) was such a joy, and the solo book that followed, THE RATTLE EGG, let me turn my lone hometown strolls into something else. I’m forever grateful.

Because Cyriaco and I team-teach in the MFA of the Americas, which we helped found, make gallery shows and interactive work that lives in floating locales, we’ve had some wonderful times. When our gallerist Pablo Vindel, featured our work with another duplo at ARCO in Madrid last year it was surreal (did the king and queen really stop by?) But smaller moments really show how collabs weave into/make lives and are just as terrific: here’s a shot from a new thing we call WOVEN. We were considering doing something else in this black box theater at Atlantic Center for the Arts but then one hand in my studio/closet hit ribbon...

Q: I’m fascinated by the way you utilize writing as but one element of larger projects, incorporating textiles, movement, collaboration. You make it all sound natural and easy, but have there been directions you’ve wished to go with materials that haven’t quite worked yet? What are those material boundaries that have, as yet, you’ve been hitting against?

A: hahaha. Well, I haven’t been able to work the margins for DOWN WATER STREET, my next project with you: literally the end words I need are threatening to fall off the side of the known world!  But this is the sort of thing I never work out alone, thank goodness. Mark Strand once said in a workshop that style is a matter of our limitations: that’s been a comfort as well as an actual accurate description. Materially, my skillset is very limited—don’t draw, not good at sewing, don’t cook etc. So if it's bad I just quit—like the time for some reason I brought turmeric in a bowl to what turned out to be a computer-based project (Breathe the Machine). Usually I wander around looking at things until something occurs to me from what the world is handing out that day. I inherited all the slides from the art dept, for example—just didn’t feel right to consign them to a dumpster. Had no idea what to do with them until I was walking around outside and began lifting one overhead. Those slidesky social media drops were lockdown gifts. Do things resist my getting close? Probably, if I thought that way—but I am not interested in mastery of stuff—more like I like noting their different beings. Meantime, it seems pertinent I run up against actually being lost quite often: last month, on my own street, which was something. So I guess I really don’t know the direction I want to go!  

Q: So perhaps this question is moot, then: with more than a dozen books and chapbooks to your credit, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work heading?

A: Oh not moot! I feel the wind at my back and so much ambition! I do think I’m getting closer to what seemed the next move when I started writing “about” art ekphrastically: that I need to get into the paint somehow. Currently that means I’m trying to make powerpoint poetics that seem their own thing, for instance (not explanatory/not decorative). Usually I’m figuring out something as an art form because it’s so there—like seeing marks for water lines on my street. I’ve really been wondering about different forms of mark-making, too; the false doors painted into Etruscan tombs that look like TT. Not sure if these thoughts have an afterlife. But I do feel as if some new work is ahead, like a shadow the sun will shift soon (I hope!) and make.
Community-wise, I’d like to keep growing into poetry’s expanded field with people who know different things and are happy to throw in together and not worry too much about definitions. My students definitely are great tosser-outers and includers—very bracing! And I’ve had great examples from different spaces—shout out to the visual poetics people who picked me up somehow—Dona Mayoora, Amanda Earl, Kristine Snodgrass, Andrew Brenza, Joakim Norling, Francisco Aprile, Nicola Winborn and all who presented irresistible opportunities even though I’m never quite in the same room. My expanded field MFA poetry faculty colleagues like Jena Osman, Ronaldo Wilson, La Tasha N Nevada Diggs, Laura Mullen, Urayoán Noel and Vidhu Aggarwal (and guests like Amaranth Borsuk, Erica Baum, Tracie Morris, Johnny Damm, Brenda Hillman, Edgar Heap of Birds) all commit firmly to the messy future. I hope to be smart and kind like them and stay face forward.   

Personally, I’d love to be included in more installations—installing is so fascinating—and exhibitions, especially international ones. I loved writing in pencil on a gallery wall. I’d love a publication homebase too.  I know where I’m penciled in to be as a person this year but where my work is actually headed “we shall see,” as mom used to say with half-threat, half-relish. I got married at 19 and had 3 kids by 25, so from that point on my life has pretty much been a matter of necessity+chance and walking through painted doors. I had fun making titles for my new future poems, though:

The Future Won't Calm Us
The Future Makes a Little Money
The Future Will Not Be a Known Language
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: I’m going to take reading as seeing too, as I tangle them. I always open Lispector and Perec and Pessoa and Dickinson (also Howe’s GORGEOUS NOTHINGS showing how what Dickinson wrote on changes everything). Yoko Ono and NH Pritchard. I loved Auden early and that remains. A wooden postcard by Jenny Holzer and paper ones by Ian Hamilton Finlay—these are propped or pinned around. Things people in my family wrote out as children: I CAN BAKE PANCAKES or a crooked list of paint sample hues (Golden Plumeria, Bee Yellow, Icy Lemonade). The sampler my many times great-grandmother sewed without a Q in 1839.

Thursday, February 8, 2024

TtD supplement #256 : seven questions for Michael Harman

Michael Harman lives in Toronto, where he works as a plumbing apprentice and dedicated writer. Beginning with the discovery of modern poets like Stein, Williams, Zukofsky, Harman’s poetry developed alongside a small group of writers, under the tutelage of Michael Boughn & Victor Coleman. His writing in its present state seeks to marry the alliterative flamboyance of Middle English poetry with the innovations of Oulipian, Found, and other constrained methods of composition. His work has been published in Echolocation, Dispatches from the Poetry Wars, COUGH, and Touch the Donkey. His first chapbook, Brittlestars (2016), was published by Shuffaloff/Eternal Network, and subsequent full-length projects arrived as FIRE (2018, Press Press Press), and Pearl (2020, Spuyten Duyvil). His most recent book is Plumbing Techniques, which will be published in 2024 by Spuyten Duyvil Press.

An excerpt of his “Plumbing Techniques” appears in the fortieth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “Plumbing Techniques.”

A: Plumbing Techniques is my most recent book of poetry. It documents in dramatic fashion my time in trade school, and uses a form of found text writing where each poem is limited to the vocabulary of 1-4 pages from a source text: most often Thoreau’s Walden. I was reading it when I began school, and its sermons resonated with my own reasoning for trying a trade – (he often proposes something like, if you’re a ‘book’ person, you should probably set down the Iliad and go hoe some beans, ... and vice versa).

I chose Plumbing because it is by far the best word of the different trades. And “plumbing techniques”, the name of the program I entered, was a natural name for the book I wanted to write.

The first poem was an emphatic response to my Nana asking why I wanted (would want) to be a plumber. From there I wrote out the excitement and fear of my first semester in this new world. I tried in my adventures to play the parts of both Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, at times unabashedly grandiose, and at others deeply humbled, subdued. I praised things that I thought deserved immense praise, and playfully teased what I felt needed teasing.

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

A: The Serial poems (larger projects) I’ve written have a special feeling to them, and the writing that happens there is markedly different. Usually for me it starts with finding a new method or interaction with the line that becomes in itself the kind of “subject” of the poems. Gestating between these special periods, I try to read more, and write as a means of keeping the muscle warm, often toying around with Oulipian and other constrained forms. Lately I’ve made some playful poems out of novel instances at my job; (I had fun detailing the carnage of my first sewage ejector pit). But overall I’ve never really connected with occasional poems, and only seem to do my best when I have the momentum of a serial propelling me. I think this is reflective of the poets I admire, and have learned from.

As far as comparing Plumbing Techniques to the other books I’ve completed – they relate in the general way that they’ve all used a specific method unique to each, and they’ve all been projects of transformation.

Q: The binary of the serial/occasional poem sits very much in the Jack Spicer vein; what first brought you to the serial poem, and what do you feel is possible through the form that wouldn’t be otherwise?

A: As far as where I got the serial from: when I was 19 I met Michael Boughn and Victor Coleman, at a time when the bpNichol writers group was humming and producing a lot of really interesting poetry. The older writers there shaped my poetics.

Part of the induction was, of course, giving me the writers I love; Spicer was big for me early on, bpNichol, Ginsberg and Williams – and most of what pulsed around the Black Mountain and Berkley circles. Later it was Duncan, Stein, Jack Clarke, HD, Zukofsky, Marianne Moore, Whitman ... I don’t want to get too off track – but most of these poets wrote in a serial way; or, at least, each poem was part of a greater opus. The poets I was around drew from all these writers, and combined their sounds with emergent formal innovations. So “serial poetry” is what I grew up around as a writer.

The second part of the question ... I can try to give a provisional answer, but I sense lingering the very difficult question of “what is poetry”, which only poetry can properly answer.

Something that jumps to my mind is the idea of a poet as someone who sort of waits around for a bolt of inspiration (a special occasion) to hit them; the poet as someone who takes comprehensible feelings and ideas (that could be relayed in conventional speech) and spins them into unnecessarily complicated, fanciful abstractions. It's the erroneousness of the simile that Williams addresses in Spring and All; or Spicer hits with his enigmatic “Not for their Significance. For their Significant”; or Clarke, “I have created the creative.” In short, poetry is not second hand, secondary, or representational. And that, I guess, is, at its worst, what I take the occasional poem to be: aftermath and lifeless.

I guess then the serial is, for me, poetry’s proper form. It takes poetry as a Life’s work. – that’s a spiritual answer. Maybe historically speaking it’s the evolution of the narrative poem.

Q: I’ve long been fascinated by that group that Coleman and Boughn led. How did you get involved, and who else was around for those sessions?

A: I was in Mike’s class at UfT and showed an interest in poetry, though I didn’t really read much, and only wrote teenager-y poems. He was kind enough to bring me in one evening. At first what I heard read there was alien and mesmerizing. I wanted to be a part of it more than anything, so I started reading and writing poetry fervently. I dropped out of school the next year to delve into my new vocation.

There were lots of great people and artists there, some of whom I’m still in touch with – but in terms of the poetry – it was Brad Shubat, Emily Izsak, Oliver Cusimano, David Peter Clarke (and Mike and Vic, of course) whose poems I was in the most immediate contact with, and who I tried most to emulate.

Q: With a couple of chapbook and book-length publications under your belt, as well as your current work-in-progress, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: It’s taken a long time, but at this point I feel like I have my own tuning and sound; and being able, in my projects, to sink into that sound feels about as good and truthful as anything. One noteworthy change since my early twenties is that I don’t feel I try any longer to be philosophical as a poet (though many of my idols are). I notice also, especially in Plumbing Techniques, that drama and silliness are a big part of my natural voice. I could go into things that have changed aesthetically, but in short I’ve just gotten better.

My reading of poetry keeps going backwards in time, so while I always return to my 20th Century roots, I’ve been really fascinated with ME poetry, and would like to write something longer than what I’ve done before. But generally, going forward, I just want to write the most beautiful thing that I can, and keep growing as a person.

Q: You mention a handful of contemporaries from the bpNichol writers group: are there any other contemporaries that have influenced the ways in which you think about writing, or approach your own work?

A: As far as contemporary poets go, I really haven’t encountered anything locally or popularly that compares to the writers I mentioned. And, as naive as it may sound, I'm not sure I will.

As far as influences, my favourite books always feel contemporary in a romantic way, and close friends who bring out your best voice are invaluable. Then there are people whose poetry comes in another form: comedians, musicians, athletes. I’m happy to take what they do analogically. Most recently, I watched my plumbing mentor dismantle an old radiator valve. That influenced how I think about writing.

Q: Perhaps, then, this question is moot, but who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: Off the top of my head: H.D.’s Trilogy, Moby Dick, Shakespeare, Jack Clarke’s In the Analogy, Duncan’s After the War, (recently) Marianne Moore’s The Fish, Mina Loy’s Song for Joannes, lots of Ivan Illich, and anyone and everyone I mentioned above. And Ralph Waldo Emerson, always.
It’s not a particularly surprising list, but it’s who I love.

I do really want to mention Zukofsky’s Catullus translation. It’s immaculate, and so much fun to read.