Monday, October 24, 2016

TtD supplement #63 : seven questions for Buck Downs

A native of Jones County Miss., Buck Downs’ latest book is TACHYCARDIA, available now from Edge Books. His chapbook Shiftless(Harvester) is newly out from above/ground press. Buck is the poetry editor of Boog City, and works at Bridge Street Books in Washington, DC.

His poems “cloud of dust,” “full speed in partial-paradise,” “cabin in the shadows” and “skinny winter” appear in the eleventh issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “cloud of dust,” “full speed in partial-paradise,” “cabin in the shadows” and “skinny winter.”

A: I wonder if what I can “tell” “about” these poems adds anything for a reader. Most of what I know about them is fairly dataesque & not much, poetically speaking.

These were the first pieces to finish in the wake of all the work writing, editing and designing my latest book, Tachycardia. So they were written in early 2013, using a source text generated in 2009-10. Probably that lag is worth a comment, if only to say that it is fairly routine that I will write down an idea for a poem and not get back to doing anything with it for 2-3 years. I make a lot of raw source material, and I work slowly. The backlog is a way of life.

I think they may each be about some aspect of “coming to”; which phrase summarizes for me a quality of the most vivid kind of life: the moment of expulsion and entrance, as in the abrupt end of a dream or other state and a zone of enhanced forward vision and decaying memory. Mental states that are better than memory? Given the role that nostalgia has played in our species’ survival, can there be anything “better than memory”?

Q: When you say “source text,” it suggests your poems are reworked from earlier sketches. Is your process one of extensive editing, or more a matter of cannibalizing lines from unfinished drafts?

A: It is a process of brute-force typing. I have a little box that when I fill it with filled notebooks, I take the box and type up its whole contents, without edits or judgment. That typing yields an ~150pp word document, which I get printed as a bound galley at Lulu, and proceed to erase/cut & paste/collage that typing into drafts.

It is a procedural writing learned from the works of e.g., Ronald Johnson, Jackson MacLow, but moving in a decidedly different direction when the source text is not Milton or Joyce but myself.

Q: Have you worked exclusively from your own source texts, or have you experimented with others as well? And what are you attempting to accomplish when reworking these collages? Are you working to achieve a particular kind of linearity in your poems, whether a flow of logic or sound?

A: The workflow process I sketched out there has been what I've been building and doing since early 2001. I started using Lulu in 2005, because printing out 150pp docs on my inkjet printer & punching them for a three-ring binder is tedious.

The point to be made about the sum of changes and ideas that I now shorthand with the word “workflow”, I guess, is that the instant perception of thought is always a sufficient ground from which to begin.

I got a lot of joy back in the 20th century from learning what I would broadly call an appropriative tradition, from, say, Apollinaire and Tzara to Burroughs, Acker, Ronald Johnson, lots more. I decided to take up the toolkit I got from reading in this tradition, and use it on the artifacts of my own mind, rather than engaging with either the news of the day or works of literature.

I have a lot of faith in the intelligence of the people who read my poems, who read poetry of any sort. That faith liberates me from any obligation to linearity or logical flow, and allows me to concentrate on making something that looks attractive and sounds enticing.

Q: Is this a process similar to the ways in which you construct a poetry manuscript? How do your books get built?

A: I’ve more or less abandoned the idea of organizing a manuscript; one more place where I get to trust the material, and the readers. Poems now are simply stacked in chronological order, and if something seems like it’s out of place, it gets removed.

In writing the three books of Pontiac Fever and then Tachycardia, poems were collected up in batches of 23, and I call that a fascicle, of course. The first poems came to 23 in number and seemed to round off into a nice shape there, so taking the result as the path, I decided to try another fascicle of 23, and then a third. Three fascicles of 23 poems each is 69, enough for a slender volume of verse, and three sets of three fascicles each would be a complete work.

I did that again to write Tachycardia; this time it took three years instead of the eight+ that I spent on Pontiac Fever.

Q: With a small handful of books going back to the late 1990s, how do you feel your poetry has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: While I was primarily exercised in the tasks around designing and publishing Pontiac Fever and another three-book collection, the Assorted Books, I took the time to look at the material footprint of what I was doing, e.g., word counts and similar metrics. One thing that I found was my frequency of profanity was on a steady decline during the ten years 2002-12.

What it means to me is a chance to pause and reflect on the relationship between profanity and vulgarity. I believe strongly in something that O’Hara called “love’s life-giving vulgarity”, and I think I understand now that the class of vocabulary called profanity stands in for vulgarity in a way that pretty much prevents me from getting to where I want to get in the poem.

There’s more to say, perhaps, but really the short answer is enough: less profanity, more vulgarity.

Q: I’m curious about this: can you say more?

A: I’m not sure :) – I am working a hypothesis that profanity is a kind of permitted-but-off-limits-in-scare-quotes form of social expression. It’s a class of words that can have a strong polarizing effect. There’s a use value to that polarization, no doubt, or it wouldn’t persist. But my further hypothesis is that I can get closer to the disturbance and delight of the poem if I don’t settle for the vocabulary designated as “dirty words”.

Put more succinctly: dirty words keep me from getting to the dirt.

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

A: Sometimes it feels like I don’t have an appropriate level of devotion to anything that I’ve ever read before. Shouldn’t I be telling people what’s good? Luckily for me I have a pretty robust number of friends and colleagues who do that business a lot more ably than I can.

Name-checking is a kind of polarizing action too, so I’m reluctant to do any more of that than I already have. But I will mention two batches of poetry audio that were galvanizing and pivotal for me when I first heard them, and that continue to open up for me over time.

The first is a cassette anthology published by the Watershed Foundation called Poetry Potpourri: Selections from the Naropa Archives. That’s where I first heard, among others, Anne Waldman’s “Light and Shadow” and Allen Ginsberg’s “Ego Confession”, which are helpful points of entry for those two poets’ works and really delightful readings.

The second is the CD that accompanies the Exact Change Yearbook #1, published by Exact Change, of course. The recording of Notley’s “At Night the States” and Spicer’s “Imaginary Elegies” you find there are more or less everything I could ever want from a poem, I think.

I think you can find their latter-day equivalents at PennSound and/or Ubuweb.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Touch the Donkey : issue eleven,

The eleventh issue is now available, with new poems by Buck Downs, lary timewell, Oana Avasilichioaei, Kemeny Babineau, Ryan Murphy, Lea Graham, kevin martins mcpherson eckhoff, Norma Cole and Sandra Ridley.

Seven dollars (includes shipping). From now on, she's smoking for two!

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Touch The Donkey #10 reviewed in Broken Pencil

Touch the Donkey #10 is reviewed by Scott Bryson in Broken Pencil (issue #5 was reviewed here, and the first issue reviewed here). Thanks much! You can see the original review here. He writes:
This tenth issue of Touch the Donkey — editor rob mclennan’s ongoing attempt to “engage with more experimental and avant-garde poetry” — presents a noticeably diverse group, both in substance and style.

Meredith Quartermain recounts a painful breast exam. Renée Sarojini Saklikar contributes a number of enigmatic, bee-centric poems excerpted from thecanadaproject, her “life-long poem chronicle about place, identity, language.” Shane Rhodes supplies poems built from phrases found in the journals of nautical expeditions. Luke Kennard spits out cascading, verbose verses that often read like spoken-word rants: “The realization fell like trochees, like a burlap sack of tchotchkes.”

The most rewarding entries in this collection come from Mathew Timmons. His first submission is two and a half pages of text that reads like the transcript of a yoga instructor’s motivational speeches. His second is a poem that finds innumerable ways to describe sundresses being shopped for online: “Detect those charismatic despicable sundresses online… Gravy those indomitable pitiful sundresses online.” Each line of this poem is capped with a curious four-digit code, which may conceal some deeper meaning, should you care to try and crack it, for example: “fRhC; Zlzk; xHmr.”

Though there’s no particular mood or theme that ties this issue’s poems together, they consistently find a satisfying balance between modernity and mystery.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

TtD supplement #62 : seven questions for Renée Sarojini Saklikar

Renée Sarojini Saklikar writes thecanadaproject, a life-long poem chronicle that includes poetry, fiction, and essays. Work from the project is widely published in journals, anthologies and chapbooks. The first completed book from thecanadaproject is children of air india, un/authorized exhibits and interjections, (Nightwood Editions, 2013) winner of the 2014 Canadian Authors Association Award for poetry and a finalist for the 2014 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Award. Trained as a lawyer at the University of British Columbia, with a degree in English Literature, Renée was called to the British Columbia Bar in 1991. A graduate of The Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University, Renée is currently a mentor and instructor for the university and co-founder of a new poetry reading series, Lunch Poems at SFU. In September 2015, with acclaimed author Wayde Compton, Renée co-edited The Revolving City: 51 Poems and the Stories Behind Them (Anvil Press/SFU Public Square). Renée serves as an advocate on the national council of The Writer’s Union of Canada and is at work on the second volume of thecanadaproject, excerpts of which can be found in the journals Eleven Eleven, The Capilano Review and online at DUSIE and The Rusty Toque. Renée is working on a sequence of bee poems based on her collaboration with well-known biologist, Dr. Mark Winston, some of which recently appeared as a chapbook with above/ground press.

A suite of poems from volume 2 of thecanadaproject appears in the tenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the suite of poems that appear in Touch the Donkey. What is thecanadaproject, and how do you see the work-in-progress volume 2 extending or expanding upon the work of the first?

A: The suite of poems that appear in Touch the Donkey are excerpted from a sequence, “Bartholomew in the compound, the bees” and this suite of poems lies nestled in the second completed series from thecanadaproject, which is a book length poem, the heart of this journey bears all patterns, commonly known as Thot-J-Bap. The Touch the Donkey suite contains pieces of a collaborative work I’ve embarked on with the Governor General award winning scientist, Dr. Mark Winston: he’s given me access to his scientific work on the honey bee and he and I are working on a set of poems and prose readings that we’ve performed in Vancouver. (https://thecanadaproject.wordpress.com/2015/09/28/of-bees-and-wings-reblogging-mark-winstons-essay/)

Thot-J-Bap is populated by a vast connection of characters, a sampling of which you will see in the excerpt included. The journey of Thot-J-Bap, over the course of decades, indeed, even, eons, explores an imaginary territory, Pacifica, loosely based on British Columbia and the Pacific North West/ Cascadia, as well as the cities of Toronto, Paris, Baghdad and Ahmedabad, and that exploration includes an investigation of various shibboleths: East v West, Empire v other, description v representation, and language in translation, the syntax of the fragment.

Parts of Thot-J-Bap appear in issue 7 of The Rusty Toque (http://www.therustytoque.com/poetry-reneacutee-sarojini-saklikar.html) and in issue 17 of DUSIE, http://www.dusie.org/issueseventeen.html as well as in The Capilano Review (issue 3.26) and in Eleven Eleven (issue 19).

thecanadaproject https://thecanadaproject.wordpress.com/ is a life-long poem chronicle about place, identity, language. In it are many things, including published material and works in progress such as a prose poem novel, a series of essays about life from India to Canada, coast to coast as well as many sequences of poems, in part, about the places I’ve lived: Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Northern Ontario, Northern Quebec, Montreal, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia. The project will end when I end. It is a series of fragments always asking, when does the poem begin? A way-finding text for my imagining a life-long poem chronicle came to me while at The Writer’s Studio, when a mentor referred me to an essay by Stephen Collis on his work, The Barricades Project. Yeah, after that I was hooked. And in that way that happens, then everything seemed to call out for long poem rendering, such as another important way-finding text, N.Wimmer’s translator’s note on R.Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives.

The first completed series of the project is children of air india, un/authorized exhibits and interjections (Nightwood Editions, 2013), about the bombing of Air India Flight 182 and recently adapted for theatre and music by Turning Point Ensemble, and a group of Irish collaborators with whom I’ve been working: air india [redacted] premiered in Vancouver Nov.6 with five shows running to Nov.11: http://www.vancouversun.com/entertainment/Music+Review+Contemporary+Unflinching+india+REDACTED/11502335/story.html
Tom Power on CBC Radio’s Q, (http://www.cbc.ca/radio/q/schedule-for-monday-november-9-2015-1.3310357/ren%C3%A9e-sarojini-saklikar-on-how-we-remember-and-forget-terror-1.3310374 )  interviewed me extensively about children of air india and I mention this because during that interview I was thinking about this very question you’ve asked: how, if in any way, does Thot-J-Bap “extend or expand” on children of air india: short answer, on one level, not at all, mercifully, because writing about the personal/public tragedy of Air India/Canada was/is lacerating; and yet, of course, on other levels, everything seems interconnected and layered, a series of transparencies and tracings, patterns which I only sense and never fully understand, nor perhaps, should I understand, but only to stay open, to be receiver, even as transgressor, juxtaposing and assembling and laying contiguous those things that the world holds must be kept separate and apart.

So the idea of layers emerges as touchstone, a continuing obsession, things that carry over, in the margins, banished from the main stage, discerned as slant. Un/authorized. Off the record. In the gutter of any page, those faint emanations of—for example, the persona character, N, who emerges as a kind of narrative guide in children of air india, and re-emerges, in different guises,  in Thot-J-Bap, where she finds—

Q: You mention one of the triggers of your life-long project being “an essay by Stephen Collis on his work, The Barricades Project” [see his Touch the Donkey interview here]. Was it really that straightforward, or were there other factors involved? What kinds of writing were you working on prior to this, if any, and did it end up being a part of the project?

A: Well, before I even had a consciousness of genre, I was working on memoir/counter-memoir; fiction; non-fiction; jottings, woven into whole cloth, fragmented.

In a series of next steps, some forward and some back, I keep writing about this thing, thecanadaproject which is comprised of: fragments that evoke or describe or investigate places I’ve lived in Canada (from Newfoundland to British Columbia and places in between); individual poems, often triggered by that obsessional trifecta: place/locale; time/dates/occurrences; loss/longing, which, as we’ve discussed, have culminated in the first completed series, children of air india; a work-in-progress, a prose-poem novel, The New Douglas Chronicles; another novel in progress, Winnipeg, 1919; a series of occasional poems, written while on public transit, particularly when riding the Skytrain.

The current series of poems, thot-j-bap (The Heart of this Journey bears all Patterns). To date, it is only very rarely, that a poem will arise that is “outside” the project. Although, I can’t think of even one right now. This is, in part, because I’ve not yet answered a life-long question, when does the poem begin? May I never discover the answer!

So, the idea of a living/lived chronicle didn’t come to me until about 2009, when I entered SFU’s The Writer’s Studio, with Wayde Compton, Rachel Rose and Betsy Warland. I don’t think initial generation of thecanadaproject would have happened without The Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University, and without the writers there who helped me unlock a way of seeing, of conceptualizing the project, but not directly and I don’t think folks were necessarily either thrilled or interested in some of my ideas: like the idea of mixing into the project, a novel – or novels or ideas for novels: for example, since 2008, those two novels, Winnipeg 1919 and The New Douglas Chronicles – I take excerpts from both and place them inside the narrative arc and structure of different ongoing series of essays/memoirs/poems. Some of these embedded narratives are then extracted for publication.

What I see now, years later, is how much guiding and supporting Wayde Compton gave me, in his light-touch-way: one of the most important influences was an introduction to the work of Fred Wah, and in particular, Diamond Grill. Wayde encouraged me to mimic the style and sequential structure of those lyric/non-lyric bio-texts. The canadaproject, with its leanings and gleanings toward the prose poem, the lyric essay, towards collagist fiction, towards a bricolage approach, towards a life-long poem form, all got their start under Wayde Compton.

And also Betsy Warland, who turned to me, one evening in June, at a student reading, and said, “You may need to transgress, just do that, if you are ready, just transgress.” And that was another clarion call.  All these word-bits, throw-away references, small asides, sentence fragments, how they echo inside me and stay with me and I learn from them, and the learning takes time, months, even years.

Back in 2009, I still didn’t have an understanding of what it takes, day in, day out, to build a writing practice that can then move you toward the “thing itself” – whether novel, lyric essay, or collection of poems. Somehow, someway, after a year of languishing: that is, after a year of holding to myself an idea for a writing project but not knowing how to move it forward, I pulled myself together enough to start reading about long poems and about life-long poems. And then the thing took off. During that phase of the project in 2009, I realized that my vision for the thing was more complex, multi-faceted and profound than I had first imagined.  The project would take much longer than a year.  So, I tried to just be with that realization: that things would take a long time. In the meantime, I attended readings by other writers, I read essays about the craft of writing, I skirted The Academy for scholarly works about the theory of language and I performed my own work. Everything flowed to me in 2009 and I gathered all of it up – each event, each reading, each essay, each poem or prose piece that I wrote, became a site of research. At the end of 2009, I realized: this will be my path. In July of 2010, I graduated with a certificate in creative writing from SFU’s writing and publishing program.


Each day, each week, I discover new paths, new ways of seeing and one pivotal discovery which has spear-headed these notes, as mentioned to you, is the reading of Stephen Collis, “The Life-Long Poem,” (Poetic Front, April 13, 2010): that essay contains not only Stephen’s notes on his own project, but a list of authors he considers as writers of the “life-long poem”: I have printed out Collis’ list of “possible life-long poems” and pasted the list onto the front of an orange notebook which I take to the library: Wordsworth, Whitman, Pound, Williams, Zukosky (I would add Reznikoff), Olson, Blaser, Duncan, bp Nichol, Silliman, Wah, and DuPlessis.


Around the time of discovering Collis’ The Barricades Project, I discovered the fragments of a poem by the writer, M.NourbeSe Philip, in the poem sequence, ferrum, found in Zong! When I read ferrum, a great excitement came over me, and some connection occurred between the words scattered on the page, with its spaces and silences, and my own interests and impulses. I began to study interruptions, disruptions to syntactical order, that at first reading seemed indecipherable, but then became not just intelligible, but perfect.  And then I met the author in Vancouver: November 29, 2009. Transformative. I’m still resonating with /contemplating that meeting, our conversation, six/seven years ago! That’s a good example of what I think of as “in-habitation” within a life-long poem. The way I seem to have to take things in, real slow.

And the idea of a living/lived chronicle more fully came to me after I began to read and am still reading, John Ashbery’s Flowchart. Also, Michael Turner’s essay, “to show, to give, to make it be there” and his curated exhibition, Expanded Literary Practices in Vancouver, 1954-1969, and all the artists and writers mentioned there and in Collis’ work, and yes, rob, all the poets and their work, and your interviews of them, at your various sites: I try and delve into that learning; and, then, always, there are the guy-poets of that thing once known as Canon: Donne, Chaucer, Dante, Yeats, Eliot, Frost,  that I’m still exploring and learning about.  This morning, on my desk: Renee Gladman’s trilogy: Event Factory/The Ravickians, Ana Patova crosses a Bridge, which I read as a long poem; plus, Baghdad, The City in Verse (Reuven Snir); also a copy of Lionel Kearns’ Convergences, also, a downloaded copy of the Senate investigative report in CIA torture released about two years ago; also, Reznikoff’s Testimony, which my husband has been reading...the beat goes on.

Q: I would also, just off the top of my head, include Robert Kroetsch, Dennis Cooley, Chris Turnbull, a rawlings and jwcurry as potential “life-long poem” practitioners. But I’m curious about your suggestion that the project will stretch beyond a single genre: will novels be part of this project as well? Have you deliberately conceptualized a project that will encompass all you produce?

A: ...yes, yes re Robert Kroetsch (Field Notes a continuing influence) et al. I will have to add a rawlings and jwcurry to my library list

Re other genres: yes, since 2008 I’ve been working (on and off, and for last few years, much more off as I completed children of air india), on those two novels (as per notes below)...and here’s how I see the first three completed volumes of tcp:

Volume 1: children of air india

Volume 2: the Heart of this Journey bears all Patterns (in several books, known as thot-j-bap)

Volume 3: the New Douglas Chronicles

And yes: although I didn’t realize it at first, after conversations about life-long poems and much rumination about chronicle-obsessions, I do conceptualize a project that encompasses all I produce/make.

Q: Given the stretch of the project, how do you see the project developing? Where do you see your work heading? Once the first three volumes are completed, for example, will the project simply open up further, or have you a specific destination (or several) in mind?

A: thecanadaproject seems to contain many more threads, sequences, than I can keep up with: I think this has to do with being permanently in a state of Archive Fever (Derrida), of cleaving to documents, language, bits and pieces:


-a new sequence of prose poems/essay fragments inspired by D.Marlatt’s Steveston, about the village, Paldi, which inspired a series of place-poems that first appeared in children of air india

-different iterations of the collaboration air india [redacted], the music, theatre, poetry, visual projections work that premiered November, 2015.

-a sequence of poems inspired by what Amber Dawn has termed, “femme,” which I interpret as a state of being: “brown, asymmetrical, and silver” aka: Mrs. Downtown Saturday Night

-a new series of “place/transit” poems that seem to arise every time I spend my poet laureate days in Surrey, crossing the Fraser River

-an epistolary sequence, forthcoming in an anthology about public mourning, to be published by University of Alberta Press, “air india un/sent”...

-a research essay embedded with poetry about the life of my father as a S.Asian United Church minister (just started in 2015, we’ll see how it goes)

Always, what drives the poetry forward is a sense of sound/cadence/rhythm as well as images, and the interest, the call, is in how the parts align/dis/align, the gaps between, the possibilities of arrangement, in addition to whatever else the poem demands, word by word, syllable by syllable, line by line.

In terms of where the work might go: the realization of the long poem is always foremost: how to keep the line, how to allow the poem to drive forward across vast distances. There is something “Siberia in Winter” about writing long poems...

Also, the fragment. Also, textures, silences, how to score silence inside language....the surface feel of things, objects: I wish I could figure out a way to be receptive enough to discern how to translate texture into language.

Once the first three volumes are completed: well, it took me five years to complete volume one, children of air india; and I’ve been writing the novels and volume two since 2008, so, mainly, I just think one poem at a time, one sequence at a time, one volume at a time, in terms of ms completion. As for poetry itself, every day is a site of research. Being inside a life-long poem chronicle produces a kind of kinetic energy, easily morphing into anxiety: so much to write, so little time. The only antidote is to do the work.

Q: I’ve long been fascinated by the possibilities of the fragment. What is your relationship to the fragment, and what do you see it achieving that couldn’t be possible otherwise?

A: about working with the fragment: it is, these days, a response to Incoming, the pervasive text, all around us; it is my poet’s relation to the notion of going inside the syntax of language, in order to inhabit a lived space, that is more than description. Something about the times we find ourselves in (have all poets at all times felt this?), that tension between living in relative comfort and security and everything else that the people of this world face, every day; something about the nature of the internet, of the age of digital (what someone once termed, the age of Staccato, in reference to 19th century/20th century advertising); about my poet’s response to fast, rather than to slow and the tension between—

I think the fragment as a means of discourse, for me, is somehow tied into my being so porous, that language rhythms and cadences are caught and held and poured over and ruminated over, and stored for a long time, for decades, and yet the world demands response time measured in seconds, in minutes.

It is about the speed of dissemination and if one is porous, and gathering fragments, how to then represent these fragments—I’m still sorting out my way with the fragment, which is very much involved in how I’m writing volume 2 of thecanadaproject: thot-j-bap: Is there a tension in the fragment between description and representation, between nanosecond and eternity, the way we cannot capture the thing most imminent?

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

A:  Friday, Dec. 4, 2015: Dear rob, I write to u from surrey on my new android. Miss my old flip phone. As I begin my new position as Surrey poet laureate, energy these days comes in real-time exploration of place, culture, language: eg, the Punjabi-Hindi tunes playing in the cab I’m in and the conversations I’m having in English about Urdu n Punjabi poetry, with a cab driver who regales me with Surrey stories.

For a list of my current readings, pls see the books cited in our exchange about the books on my desk (Gladman, Kearns, Reznikoff).  Also, Jeff Derksen (The Vestiges), Jaqueline Turner (The Ends of the Earth). In late November, I attended an afternoon salon in Fort Langley with former poet laureate of Edmonton, E.D. Blodgett: was spell-bound in the winter light, listening to his reading of a sequence of poems in his book, Musical Offering (Coach House, 1986).

As well, I’ve started to run in the mornings, very much beginner and I’m contemplating Murakami’s writing on the connections btwn a running practice n a writing practice. 

Also, later today I’ll attend my first Zumba class: so energy comes, ultimately, from the body and as Jack Gilbert says, from the dance most of all.

XRSS October – December, 2015

Thursday, September 8, 2016

TtD supplement #61 : seven questions for Shane Rhodes

Shane Rhodes is the author of five books of poetry including his most recent X: poems and anti-poems (2013, Nightwood Editions) and Err (2011, Nightwood Editions). Shane’s awards include an Alberta Book Award for poetry, two Lampman-Scott Awards, the National Magazine Gold Award for poetry, the P. K. Page Founder’s Award for Poetry and a nomination for the Ottawa Book Award. Shane’s poetry has also been featured in the anthologies Best Canadian Poetry in 2008, 2011, 2012 and 2014, and Breathing Fire II.

His poem “an excerpt from ‘Wind’” appears in the tenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the work-in-progress “Wind,” specifically the short excerpt included in this issue.

A: In 1691, Edmund Hailey theorized that measuring the time it takes Venus to pass directly between the Earth and the Sun, the transit of Venus, from disparate locations on Earth could finally solve, by measuring the solar parallax, one of astronomy’s big questions: what is the astronomical unit (the distance from the Earth to the Sun)? How big is the solar system? and, more generally, What is our place in the heavens?

There were two transits in the 17th century: one each in 1761 and 1769. In 1761, it is estimated that measurements were made by 124 observers from 65 different locations; however, most of the measurements weren’t precise enough. In 1769, there were about 171 observers at 77 observational posts around the world. Of these, there were two important expeditions organized by the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge. The first, led by Captain James Cook, was sent to the newly-discovered-by-Europeans island of Tahiti in the South Pacific; after measuring the transit, Cook was given orders to search for “Terra Australus”. The second expedition, led by William Wales and his assistant Joseph Dymond, was sent to Fort Prince of Wales in what is now Churchill, Manitoba completing the first European astronomical expedition to the Canadian arctic and the first temperature and air pressure readings in Western Canada. Another important expedition was commissioned by Christian VII of Denmark and led Maximilian Hell and his assistant János Sajnovics to Vardo, Norway. Data from these and other expeditions and 1761 were synthesized by the French astronomer Joseph Jérme de Lalande at the Académie royal des sciences in Paris and resulted in a measurement of 153 million KM; Hell did his own calculations and came up with a measurement of 151.7 million KM. The actual distance is around 150 million KM.

This poem, largely found, works with the journals from three expeditions—James Cook in Tahiti and Australia; William Wales in Churchill, Manitoba; and Maximilian Hell in Vardo, Norway—to measure the 1769 transit of Venus. With all three expeditions, the journal records are records of science, “discovery” and nascent colonial endeavours offering a glimpse of 17th century European thought on the edge of their known world.

Q: How does this piece fit with the other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: I’m near the end of a book-length project looking at European discovery texts related, largely, to the exploration of Canada and to the growing fields of science that were part of the colonial endeavour. I’m looking at material from the 15 century up to the 20th and even have a section playing with western comics from the 1950s. In all of it, I’m interested in looking at the roots of European colonization, how it imagined itself and how we now imagine it and turning “found writing” back onto these original texts of discover, finding and keeping.

Q: This isn’t your first project utilizing archival materials, specifically discovery/settlement texts (I’m thinking specifically of your work utilizing treaties). What first prompted you to explore the archive in such a way? What do you think engaging with such texts allows your work to explore that you couldn’t otherwise?

A: I’m fascinated by the stories our culture tells itself and the ones it chooses to forget and how these processes of amnesia and myth making can be traced through historical documents. There is no better way to engage with the past and look at how it continues to shape our present than through the use, reuse, and repurposing of archival material. In this, I also want to look at how I can push conceptual and experimental writing techniques beyond just neat ideas to actually serve a broader purpose of social justice and decolonization.

Q: Your first two poetry collections, in comparison, are composed utilizing a far more straightforward lyric. With your more recent work engaged in more “conceptual and experimental writing techniques,” is the more lyric poem something you’ve set aside for now, or something you’ve outgrown? Has the conceptual framework always been present?

A: I’ve never really seen my more conceptual work as being that different from my lyrical work. In the end, they are both working the same veins and interests. However, I find the conceptual techniques I am currently using—like found poetry—make ethical and moral sense for the subjects I want to investigate. How else can a white man write about colonization and the systematic racism and anti-indigenousness it perpetuates than by sampling the documents our culture has created and continues to create to forward the colonial enterprise? As an artist, it seems limiting to me to just write or create in the same way all the time when we have all these other techniques at our disposal.

Q: With five trade poetry collections, as well as your current work-in-progress, over the past near-two decades, how do you feel your poetry has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: Issues of history, social injustice and invigorating poetry with experimentation, design and form are always, I think, going to be of keen importance for me. I look forward to each new project as its an opportunity to try something new, to write into something I haven’t written before.

Q: For quite some time now, your poetry collections have existed as book-length projects. Do you exclusively work on the book as your unit of composition, or are there individual, stand-alone poems that still emerge from time to time? How do your poetry manuscripts usually come together?

A: I enjoy playing with the book as a compositional unit and putting as much attention into book design as I do into a poem. As a reader of contemporary poetry, I find the lack of attention to book design really frustrating — it seems to me that the book should be treated no different than a poem and that, if my poems are bound together by this structure, it should be used to its maximum, its conventions should be played with, and its strictures should be pushed. Right now, most of my projects are book length meditations on specific issues or forms. As for how they come together: slowly.

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

A: I’ve been wallowing around in the 15 to the 17th century over the past few years as I have worked away on my new project. I love the defamiliarization that these texts can create where you see the reconfiguring of language, syntax and diction — it allows you to see the passage of time and how writing and language have evolved over the ensuing 300 years. A year ago, I tracked down the journal that William Wales kept when he was in Churchill, MB completing the Venus transit measurements in 1769 — they are hand written and kept in a plain envelope at the Thomas Fischer Rare Book Library in Toronto. It is a short journal, mostly full of scientific observations, calculations and the odd drawing. The paper has no particular smell but has certainly begun to age and dry. When I arrived, it was waiting for me on a wooden desk and I spent a few hours taking notes, handling it, scanning it and reading it. I’m sure the envelop hadn’t been opened since the 1950s. I’m sure when he was writing his observations, he would never have predicted that they would be intimately read by a poet 250 years later.

I’ve also been interested in looking at writers who are working the same vein. One example is a poet like Caroline Bergvall with her book Drift (which we were lucky to see in Ottawa when she came her in March for VerseFest)—I enjoy her play with early Anglo-Saxxon narratives and her expansion of the texts in and through performance.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

TtD supplement #60 : seven questions for Luke Kennard

Luke Kennard is a poet and writer of fiction who was born in Kingston Upon Thames in 1981 and grew up in Luton. He won an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors in 2005 and his first collection of prose poems The Solex Brothers was published later that year by Stride. His second collection The Harbour Beyond the Movie was published by Salt in 2007 and was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection, making him the youngest writer ever to be shortlisted. The Migraine Hotel was published in 2009 and A Lost Expression was released in 2012 alongside Holophin which won the Saboteur Novella award that year. His fiction and poetry criticism has appeared in Poetry London, the Times Literary Supplement and The National. He has a PhD in English from the University of Exeter and lectures at the University of Birmingham. In 2014 he was named one of the Next Generation Poets by the Poetry Book Society in their once per-decade list. His fifth collection of poems, Cain, will be published summer 2016 and his first novel, The Transition, will be published by 4th Estate in 2017.

His poem “additional versions of the enchanted component” appears in the tenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poem “additional versions of the enchanted component.”

A: I love almost every vice except for the desire for power. I’m greedy for money, I eat and drink too much, I’m half crazy with lust, the only reason I don’t gamble is because I know I’d lose absolutely everything and destroy my family. But power doesn’t interest me at all, except as a means to getting more of all the aforementioned stuff, and seeing as they’re not qualities I’m exactly proud of or want to cultivate, I can’t even appreciate wanting power on that base level. So writing poems from the perspective of a politician looking back on their career is an attempt to locate and understand that impulse within myself (the one I assume I don’t have, which may only be because I’m in a position of privilege which denies its own built-in power). “additional versions” is the second sequence in a long collection of poems from this point of view. I wrote them using a kind of augmented collage technique where you have various contrasting texts around you which you can reach for whenever you’re feeling stuck, and you treat your own lines and observations as another text, giving it no greater status than the cheap novel, the political treatise, the technical poetics magazine and old Peanuts collection open on your desk. So it’s fairly aleatory, but you find your own path through it, you play one off the other and you build a picture through the juxtapositions. I think it’s a technique which comes fairly naturally to everyone – like it’s something you enjoy doing as a child which you maybe forget about. It’s something I did a lot in my first collection in 2005, but I’d sort of wandered away from it until recently.

Q: What made you wander back? And how does this differ from the work you’ve done since your first collection?

A: I wrote my first collection in my dad’s attic. He’s been self-employed as a translator for 30 years and his walls are lined with obscure books and dictionaries. He’s currently studying Sami, the family of indigenous languages spoken in Lapland. For fun. Anyway, point is, whenever I was stuck I’d go and pick a book off the wall and flick through it until a phrase caught my attention, and this would provide the next plot-point, the next image or swerve. And then what I did in three collections since then, from 2006 to 2012 drifted more into surrealism/absurdism without the cut-ups, sometimes even lyric-y, but I hope stranger than that, less fixed. But I have a tendency to lapse into self-parody, to get bored, and I feel a little bored by those collections now, and I wasn’t writing very much at all until I started this long project on poems about Cain, which is being edited now. And I was using the long-form anagram for a big section of that MS (inspired by Gregory Betts, who came and read at the university I teach in in the UK), and I think that’s what got me back into looking at process again. I’ve always admired innovative poetry, even the stuff I struggle with (which is I guess the point), especially the awkward stuff that doesn’t fit easily into a movement, and it’s not as if collage has been “done” and has no more use. I wanted to see how the book selection altered the mood and atmosphere of the poetry, so I set some categories (a book of high-end poetics criticism; a non-fiction book of the geopolitical horror genre; a Peanuts collection; a pre-19th c. fiction text and a 20th/21st c. fiction text) and decided to use this same set of categories (but different texts) for each sequence of five or so poems. But all of the sources are distorted and blended in with my own lines (and the voice of this central character who I wanted to explore), which is where the revision comes in.

Q: I’m curious about you, as a poet, being the child of a translator. Has any of your father’s work, directly or indirectly, influenced the ways in which you see language and writing?

A: My dad is a freelance translator and takes whatever’s going, so he’s only ever worked on a handful of books, and all non-fiction (history, etc.) He’s fluent in a dozen languages but can translate around 30 into English. He’s been doing this for thirty-five years, so long before there were online tools to help with the basics. Sadly I have absolutely none of his talent (or discipline) for languages, although he tried to teach me Italian and French while I was growing up. That said, being surrounded by books, and having volumes of Italian and Russian fiction and poetry in the house were clearly formative for me. And also just that love of language, of the way our cultural differences map onto our words for things and ways of putting things, all those ‘untranslatable’ proverbs and figures of speech – that was always a part of my life, a part of our conversation even when I was a little child. He’s a very kind man and was always encouraging of my writing. When I was a toddler he worked on an old typewriter and whenever he’d upgrade he’d pass the old one on to me. For years he had this type-writer / word processor which saved onto 5 inch floppy discs and had a single strip of green digital display so it could show you about five words at a time, and instead of the hammers it had the letters on a sort of metal golfball and would type up whole documents like an autopiano. Then he upgraded to a much smaller Sharp thing with a blue screen that could display maybe a paragraph at a time and saved onto 3.5 inch discs, and I got that when he got his first PC. So from the age of, say, five, I’d sit up in my room day and night writing long science fiction stories instead of forming any meaningful relationships with my peers.

Q: Over the years you’ve done extensive work via the prose poem. What is it about the prose poem that appeals? What is it that you feel the prose poem allows you to do or explore that the more traditional lyric (or, arguably, more straightforward prose) does not?

A: I just really love it as a form. I write fiction and poetry with line-breaks too, so I’m not a purist in the Francis Ponge mould, but I feel like I’m using a completely different part of my brain when I write prose poetry. I like its expansiveness, its freedom. The fact that it can incorporate some heavy linguistic innovation alongside weird parables and fables as well as direct autobiography. There’s a Jennifer L. Knox sequence called ‘Cars’ which I use with my students to get them to look back on their own lives through a particular lens and it introduces them to the form’s possibilities really well. Mairead Byrnes’s Talk Poetry is one of my all time favourite collections. I like the rebellious streak in prose poetry too.

I think it comes down to the fact that in fiction you’re free to do pretty much whatever you like... You kind of expect an intelligent reader who won’t be put off by being challenged. In poetry I often feel like you come up against a certain cultural conservatism... I feel this from sharing work with people and sometimes from what my students like and dislike. People are almost offended by a poem that won’t behave itself formally. And the thing is quite often when you look at poetry by avowed contemporary formalists, it doesn’t even scan! It’s got nothing on the storybooks I read to my sons at night. (You can take Clive James’s recent climate-change-denial poem as a good example of that). So, it’s like, what are they even insisting on here? The only thing I’d fail my students for (i.e. insisting on using a rhyme scheme and doing it horribly)? I think it was the critic Stephen Fredman who said the prose poem is “at war with decorum.”: when the decorum in question is bullshit that’s particularly important.

Q: You mention Knox and Byrne: what other poets have influenced the ways in which you put together a poem, or even a collection?

A: I wasn’t massively interested in poetry until a tutor leant me the first New York School anthology and the selected Ashbery. Before that we had the big Bloodaxe anthologies of contemporary British poetry at school (The New Poetry, 1993) and a lot of it left me fairly cold, except for the Scottish poet Frank Kuppner and an English poet John Ash (who was very influenced by Ashbery and now lives in Istanbul, I think). More recently I’ve got interested in collections with a narrative running through them like Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red. I teach an MA module called Poem as Story – Story as Poem where we look at hybrid works like that. And I suppose that was quite a big influence on me when I was putting together Cain which came out in June.

Q: After more than a half-dozen trade books over the past decade-plus, how do you feel your work has progressed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: I like what I’m writing now. I feel like pursuing the collage thing and maybe working this sequence into a book length collection over the next couple of years. I’ve got a novel coming out next March. If that does okay I suppose I’ll be under some pressure to work on fiction for a while. But, if nothing else, working as a poet gives you a healthy dose of pessimism and realism: the novel could be as big a commercial flop as the poetry. And that has to be beside the point; I think you always have to keep in mind that there are literally millions of other writers who’d like any attention, any readers whatsoever. I got a little despondent around the time of my 4th collection in 2012 because it sold, I’m not exaggerating, a tenth of what my first three collections did individually. I felt like I’d tried to do something a little different and then I thought, but what does that even matter if almost nobody wants to engage with the work? There were various reasons for it sinking without a trace (it was an attractive over-priced hardback and the paperback didn’t come out in time; the publisher, Salt, were in the process of dropping their whole poetry list; some other things). And I probably didn’t do enough to promote it either. I probably have close friends who don’t know about that book. But that’s the mid-career jinx, isn’t it? The people asking you for references, blurbs, advice, etc, outweighs your readership by about two to one. With Cain I guess I thought, well, clearly there’s not a soul who’s going to buy Another Collection of Poems by Luke Kennard so if I’m going to bother bringing out another trade book at all it has to be something different. I mean that sounds very cynical. I was writing the Cain poems anyway, so it was maybe more of a coincidence. And of course the alternative is to do things on a very small scale, bring out gorgeous hand-made books in print runs of 25 and just be happy with what you’re creating.

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

A: That’s such a good way of putting it. I go back to Berryman’s The Dream Songs a lot. The Yale anthology 20th Century French Poetry gets fairly well thumbed. I get a lot of my energy from reading new stuff too. Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women and David McGimpsey’s Asbestos Heights are currently blowing my face off.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Touch the Donkey : back issue sale,

JOIN THE CROWD! Until September 15, 2016, why not pick up any five of the first ten issues of the quarterly Touch the Donkey [a small poetry journal] for only $20? (plus shipping, of course)

Touch the Donkey #1 : new work by Camille Martin, Eric Baus, Hailey Higdon, rob mclennan, Norma Cole, Elizabeth Robinson, Rachel Moritz, Gil McElroy and Pattie McCarthy. Touch the Donkey #2 : new work by Julie Carr, Catherine Wagner, Susanne Dyckman, Pearl Pirie, David Peter Clark, Susan Holbrook, Phil Hall and Robert Swereda. Touch the Donkey #3 : new work by Gil McElroy, j/j hastain, derek beaulieu, Megan Kaminski, Roland Prevost, Emily Ursuliak, Susan Briante and D.G. Jones. Touch the Donkey #4 : new work by Maureen Alsop, Stan Rogal, Laura Mullen, Jessica Smith, Lise Downe, Kirsten Kaschock, Gary Barwin, Chris Turnbull, Nikki Sheppy, Lisa Jarnot. Touch the Donkey #5 : new work by Edward Smallfield, Rob Manery, Elizabeth Robinson, lary timewell, nathan dueck, Paige Taggart, ryan fitzpatrick, Christine McNair. Touch the Donkey #6 : new work by Lola Lemire Tostevin, D.G. Jones, Aaron Tucker, Deborah Poe, Jason Christie, Jeffrey Jullich, Jennifer Krovonet, Kayla Czaga, Jordan Abel. Touch the Donkey #7 : new work by Stan Rogal, Helen Hajnoczky, Kathryn MacLeod, Shannon Maguire, Sarah Mangold, Amish Trivedi, Suzanne Zelazo. Touch the Donkey #8 : new work by Mary Kasimor, Billy Mavreas, damian lopes, Pete Smith, Sonnet L’Abbé, Katie L. Price, a rawlings, Gil McElroy. Touch the Donkey #9 : new work by Stephen Collis, Laura Sims, Paul Zits, Eric Schmaltz, Gregory Betts, Anne Boyer, François Turcot (trans. Erín Moure, Sarah Cook. Touch the Donkey #10 : new work by Meredith Quartermain, Mathew Timmons, Luke Kennard, Shane Rhodes, Renée Sarojini Saklikar, Amanda Earl.

To order, send cheques (add $1 for postage; outside Canada, add $2) to: rob mclennan, 2423 Alta Vista Drive, Ottawa ON K1H 7M9 or paypal at www.robmclennan.blogspot.com

Be sure to check out the Touch the Donkey blog for some sixty interviews (and counting) with a variety of contributors!

And of course, subscriptions for future (quarterly) issues are available as well! Five issues for $30 (CAN/US). Watch for the issue #11, due to land October 15th!

And check out our Facebook group for ongoing interview and issue notifications!

Touch the Donkey. Everywhere you want to be.