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.

Monday, August 8, 2016

TtD supplement #59 : seven questions for Amanda Earl

Amanda Earl is a Canadian poet, publisher and pornographer who lives in Ottawa, Ontario. Her most recent published works are A World of Yes (DevilHouse, 2015), Coming Together Presents Amanda Earl (Coming Together, 2014), Kiki (Chaudiere Books, 2014), A Book of Saints (above/ground press, 2015). For more information, please visit AmandaEarl.com or connect with Amanda on Twitter @KikiFolle.

Her “three untitled poems after Vasko Popa” appear in the tenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “three untitled poems after Vasko Popa.”

A: I first encountered Vasko Popa in my University of Ottawa English 4398 creative writing workshop with Seymour Mayne in 2001. We were asked to study specific poets. I ran across the anthology The Poetry of Survival: Post-War Poets of Central and Eastern Europe, Daniel Weissbort, ed. (Anvil Press, 1991). I was particularly interested with the way these poets (in translation) handled the brutality and trauma of the first and second world wars. They had various strategies to speak out against injustices, to deal with the horrors of concentration camps, but they had to get past the censors. Vasko Popa, in his series “Quartz Pebble,” and in other poems, personified abstractions. I’ve always been fascinated with this. In a time when censorship is increasingly on the rise, not just from authorities but also within peer groups, it is hard not to think about this time as a constraining era of suppression and repression. I’m fascinated with the way Popa used geometry in his poetry, such as “The Little Box Poem”: “In your four-sided emptiness/We turn distance into nearness/Forgetfulness into memory”

Q: You’ve long been exploratory in your writing, and utilizing large projects. Are these poems part of a larger, longer project?

A: Those are the first three, but I already have a few ideas for more. I thought I was writing only the one poem, but that poem suggested another poem, etc. so...possibly.

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

A: I’m going through a period of attempting minimalism, which I’ve been working on since the summer of 2015. working with shorter lines, little punctuation or staccato breaks. before that I was in a more accumulative, expansive horror vacui phase.

Q: What prompted the shift towards minimalism? And when you say minimalism, are you thinking of a particular lyric density, or a complete minimalism, a la Nelson Ball?

A: For the last two years, I’ve been working with poet, playwright, novelist Tom Walmsley and reading his work. His ability to say a lot with few words has been a great influence. We even wrote haiku together, a form I couldn’t stand before Tom’s influence.  Also, I tend to be a rebel. I don’t like to do things the same way. My motto is “expect the unexpected.”

Ok, googling “lyric density” and found this from a piece on song writing: “the number of words that must fit within a measure.” I like the idea of that. How does it apply to poetry? Perhaps on the level of sound, number of syllables that fit into a breath. I’ve always played with the line and the breath in my writing, creating a line long enough to make the reader breathless at the end of it. Minimalism allows for more breathing room. That’s my current thought anyway.

A number of years ago Stephen Ross Smith gave a great reading at the Manx Pub as part of the Plan 99 Reading Series from his fluttertongue series of books. There were a lot of pauses and silences in his work. It made the words resonate more and as a reader, I was able to have more time to think about what I was hearing.

I’m just trying to see if I can take up as small a space as possible while having imagery that resonates and ripples outward. I’m a small person but can pack a powerful punch. Just before this phase, I was interested in trying to work in conversational words in my poetry. Stuff like adverbs, repetition of words that play no function except for connection or reassurance with the listener. Now I’m paring things down. perhaps leaving more space for the reader/listener.

After my health crisis in 2009, I felt the need to declutter, to get rid of items in my life that were extraneous. to eschew the material in favour of the spiritual. This need is now working its way into my poetry. When I plummet, I want to do it lightly and leave no trace. perhaps the next phase of my writing will be inkless.

Q: With a published trade collection and a growing mound of chapbooks to your credit over the past decade or so, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see yourself headed?

A: I don't know how to answer the question of how my work has developed. Each work, for me, is its own thing. What is the mark of growth or development for a person who does any kind of creative work? am I better at it now than I was a decade ago? I’m more opinionated about what I’m doing perhaps, but I always have beginner mind. Every work I try is something new. As long as I’m not boring myself or an audience at a reading, I’m ok.

If development means getting the opportunity to have more work published or do more readings, perhaps there things have improved. But to be honest, I’m fine with being obscure and in the margins. It’s easier to try a somersault on a high wire and fall if no one’s looking than it is if all eyes are on you. I have a few manuscripts at the bottom of publishers’ slush piles, which probably need retooling and sent out again so they float to the top.

I have other manuscripts I should probably revisit, and I will when the mood strikes me. The only kind of development that matters to me is to be more open to exploration and trying new things. The day I say no to exploration, I might as well stop writing and start a parking lot business. I wouldn’t mind having more books published, but aside from sending stuff out and hoping it resonates, I have no control over that. If I get impatient and feel that something needs to be out there, I can always publish it myself, like I did recently with my erotic novel, A World of Yes, which I published as an e-book through DevilHouse (imprint of AngelHousePress).

I have no particular plans, I just go where the work takes me. I become fascinated or obsessed with something, a piece of art, music, film, a snippet of conversation, the biography of some obscure person or an image, and I let my curiosity lead me to reading and thinking and writing about it.

I’m fascinated right now with hybrid forms that resist genre labels. I’d like to write a long poem that works somehow as a piece of theatre.

Q: Do you see yourself eventually branching out into other genres? So far, you’ve predominantly published poetry, but have been moving slowly into prose-specific projects. Or is genre something you see more fluid, attempting to incorporate structures from different systems into the scope of the poem?

A: I’ve been writing short fiction now for over a decade, mostly smut. I’ve just started a new collection of linked short stories. I like the idea of pushing the expected boundaries of genre and of fluidity. rather than any specific intent, I’m more interested in seeing what happens by being open.

Q: How does your poetry interact with your fiction? Do the genres converse, or are they entire separate?

A: Both require an ear. i read everything aloud to ensure it sounds right. i’ve written characters in poetry but fiction allows a deeper exploration of character than i have done in poetry.

in a few cases, I’ve had an image in mind that has recurred. I’ve written both poems and stories using that image. so poetry and fiction can interact for me. One of my poetry manuscripts, All the Catharines, features a character speaking to its author.

I read somewhere that poetry is not fiction, but I think it can be, in the sense that things can be made up. A recent poetry manuscript that I started called Grace, involves the character of a woman in her 50s. I’m using some of the techniques of fiction, specifically accumulation of details and pacing to create an impression of the whole character. A lot of narrative poems employ fiction characteristics, include character, plot, setting, etc. epics, for example. I think genre lines can blur.

The techniques of poetry have also informed my fiction, which fiction has become sparer too.

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

A: Anne Carson, Tom Walmsley, Nathanaël, Hélène Cixous, Robert Kroetsch, Dennis Cooley, the Beats

Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet; Walmsley’s Honeymoon in Berlin, What Happened; Je Nathanaël, Cixous’ Firstdays of the Year; Kroetch’s Completed Field Notes; Cooley’s The Bentleys; biographies and memoirs set in Paris between the wars or in New York in the 50s, stories of rebels. Kerouac’s On the Road...Victoria Finlay’s Travel Through the Paintbox, Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses...Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

TtD supplement #58 : seven questions for Meredith Quartermain

Meredith Quartermain is a poet and fiction writer whose most recent book is I, Bartleby, a book of stories. Her other titles include Rupert's Land: a novel, Recipes from the Red Planet (shortlisted for a BC Book Prize for fiction), and Vancouver Walking, which won a BC Book Prize for poetry.

Her poem “Breastwork” appears in the tenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poem “Breastwork.”

A: One of the things I was thinking about was the dictionary definition: “a low, temporary defensive work, usually breast-high; also called a parapet” (Funk & Wagnall).

Q: Is this a stand-alone piece, or part of a larger construction?

A: At the moment it’s on its own or perhaps with a number of other autobiographical pieces.

Q: What prompted the shift into more autobiographical pieces?

A: There are those who would say we never write anything but autobiography, since almost any piece could be said to mark trails in the sands where we have meandered.

Q: True. But then, why specify “other autobiographical pieces” unless this were a shift you were already conscious of?

A: Well, I think some of my pieces are obviously autobiographical in that they seem to relate directly to the body of the putative author, i.e. me, while others though still written very much out of my own experience, throw up various disguises, i.e. narrators that seem less obviously related the body of the putative author. In this case the piece recounts pretty much as it happened an actual event in my life in the so-called “real world.” A lot of Nightmarker is autobiographical in that way in that it recounts various trips around the city. But autobiography is fiction of course.

Q: You’ve been working predominantly, it would seem, on fiction over the past few years. What brought you back to the prose poem? With this piece, where might your work be heading?

A: “Breastwork” was written several years ago, but now that I’ve ventured into fiction more fully, I’m beginning to see how these earlier pieces which I didn’t know what to do with could work together or lead to more pieces.

Q: I’m curious about the return to older, seemingly stand-alone pieces. Is this a normal element of how you write, and potentially construct book-length manuscripts? Are poems composed on a piece-by-piece basis and sometimes collected far later, if at all?

A: I, Bartleby was a planned book. Every piece written to fit with in its exploration of writers and writing. But before that, since Recipes from the Red Planet, I had been experimenting with short prose pieces. I’m still experimenting now, writing individual pieces and exploring where they might go. So who knows some may be gathered into a future collection, especially if they lead into a series of pieces that explore an idea.

Q: It sounds as though your manuscripts are explorations: first, of form, and second, of subject or idea. Is this a fair assessment? What do you feel you’ve not yet been able to articulate through the space of the prose poem?

A: Right at the moment, this is true, I’m sticking to narration and story telling. As to what I haven’t been able to articulate, well, I guess I haven’t found out what voice and what thoughts can emerge from this method of thinking. I guess you could call them thought experiments, in a way.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Touch the Donkey : tenth issue,

The tenth issue is now available, with new poems by Meredith Quartermain, Mathew Timmons, Renée Sarojini Saklikar, Luke Kennard, Shane Rhodes and Amanda Earl.

Seven dollars (includes shipping). If you want to throw out a box, you have to cut it up.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

TtD supplement #57 : seven questions for François Turcot

Montreal poet François Turcot is the author of Mon dinosaure (Finalist, Montreal Poetry Festival Prize 2014), Cette maison n’est pas la mienne (Émile-Nelligan Prize 2009), Derrière les forêts (Finalist, Émile-Nelligan Prize 2008) and miniatures en pays perdu (2006), all from La Peuplade. His poems have appeared in English translations in Aufgabe, New American Writing, dandelion, Action Yes, filling Station and Lyrikline. My Dinosaur, translated by Erín Moure, appeared from BookThug in April 2016.

His poem “SOLID GROUND —SIXTH WHALEBONE,” translated by Erín Moure, appears in the ninth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poem “SOLID GROUND —SIXTH WHALEBONE.”

A: In the poem Sixth Whalebone, from My Dinosaur, there is a passage where the father has run aground on a beach, swallowed by the sun. It follows scenes of a shipwreck and a windstorm. In this scene, the father seems dead, lying under the sun. This poem appears just before the end of the book, and speaks again of a disappearance. Here, the weight of memory of a father is heavy, like the whale, like the dinosaur. Both animal metaphors are gigantic, childish and excessive. The dinosaur of the book is at the same time the father, my own father, a man from another epoch whom I try to reassemble, and the absent figure of an animal bigger than nature who fascinates me. This animal has obviously faded, passed away, is no longer living but exists in representation, and that brings me immediately to my own father’s departure.

My Dinosaur is an excavation project, a research that digs around the father figure, whose story is that of a recent past. The whale appears in the last part of the book: here, seven whalebones, seven watery souvenirs of past summers are related. In them, my father, like an enormous mammal of the shallows, arises misunderstood, run aground, in small boats, under water or floating as my memory. I play here with the word “whale”, the cetacean of the depths – another icon of childhood (as the dinosaur of the title) that lets archaic images emerge. On another level, the “whales” refer also to the whalebone stays that stiffened his short collars, small plastic or metal lathes he kept in a small box – the Box of Whalebones stays. Two scales then collide together: the tiny whale, erased, those of the collars of my father that remind me of my memories, and the whale-father, obviously more heavy, the one who navigates in the dark depths of childhood waters.

Q: The structure of exploring childhood through a narrative surrounding the metaphor of the whale is an intriguing one. How does this work compare to your prior books? How does the composition of such a book usually begin?

A: In fact, the exploration of childhood using metaphors is rather recent in my work. I’ve only explored animal forms since My Dinosaur. But after that book, I became more fascinated by child’s play. I just finished a new collection of poems that is populated by many animals. I’ve dedicated the book to my daughter, to the ideas of memory flashes-before-memory, where the poem is a cross of micro-stories, fragments and prose. Dozens of animals punctuate this new project, appearing suddenly, becoming images and representations of fears, laughter, dread, desire, etc. But “animal presences” do not always appear in my first books, where it’s more the “family souvenirs” that I explore, trying to detect and follow the paths of memories.

And to answer your question, each of my books has a precise focal point, a specific subject: a night walk in the forest, a house history, a father, a child. These are the things that fascinate me. I investigate what lives close to me, by creating writing platforms related to family archaeologies. I like that a poetry book presents an architecture, one or many narrative veins, and the “excavations” that I propose in each project are linked to a quest after clues, which are collections of past traces, reconstructions... where the line between imagination and reality is thin. In a way, I follow trails to question memories and to structure them the trails become clear in the writing process. My books are then always related to a narrative deployment, as fiction can be. In this way, poetry becomes close to fiction.

Q: I’m curious about how My Dinosaur, as you say, is “an excavation project.” What first prompted you to explore your own childhood and history in such a way?

A: First, this book was conceived over few years: I spent a long time searching its axes, its voices, its pulsation. To tell the truth, I’d always promised myself that if I were someday able to “investigate,” to write about my father’s world, I’d do so. This Dinosaur, this enigmatic father, before being a book, was a pretext for collecting memories – mine first, his, and all those that I may have invented... I then started to conceive this “character”, because he was one, not just like a parent as seen by a child, but also like a hypothesis formed by a detective, by an archivist faced with disorder, an archeologist in front of too many approximations... And all this was conducted in angular ways, breaking with chronology, so as to get closer to his life.

To circumscribe a life is clearly impossible, for like any History, it can only be uncovered in fragments. It became obvious, in inventing stories of my dad (more than a hundred in My Dinosaur – both ordinary and extravagant) as well as accumulating them, that I would end up telling his story, or a story that seems to be him. To do this, I use lyric poems, fragments of letters, narrative pieces, prose or free variations, in verse form or not. 

And then, to avoid pathos, because it’s not always pertinent to hear about someone else’s father, to open up the reading a bit more, I played on biographic strategies, insisting on the anonymous aspect and the daily life of a man who could be or not be my father, especially in the Prehistories section, the heart of the project. I do think My Dinosaur as a book on the Father, but not only mine, for it points in many directions, targeting many epochs. This also creates, I hope, an alternation between distance and proximity in face of this man who could, despite his inimitable presence, be somebody else...

Q: After a small handful of books published over the past decade, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see yourself headed?

A: When I look at this decade, I clearly see a focussed movement – the more I write poetry, the more I commit myself. Here I think about both the nature of the topics covered and the way I consider or envisage lyric forms. What is sure is that I constantly search to elude and foil myself, to surprise myself and to place myself in “risky situations” where I explore a specific subject – sometimes a delicate one, with, I hope, an originality. Each of my books is then very different as much in the formal approach as in the architecture or purpose: they point at diverse directions, so that – when I put all my books in perspective, I can perceive the ensemble like a “small constellation”, where each book has its own motive.

And where I see myself  headed ? As I mentioned, narrative forms always interest me, so I will probably work on a “novel” over the next few years. I use the word novel, but let’s say a story. And poetry, of course! Also, my new book will be published this fall by Le Cormier (Belgium) and La Peuplade (Quebec). After that, even if I have intuitions, even if I try to imagine the next books, the future is a real riddle...

Q: I’m curious about your relationship to your works in translation. How close do you feel to a book of yours translated into another language?

A: So close... Erín Moure’s translation is clear, sensible, precise, rigorous and inventive. A real poïesis happens – as she mentioned herself in the postface entitled Si Moure traduit Turcot : a Book of Hours becomes a Book of Ours. Also, I had the chance to talk with her about the text, about some questions related to the lexicon, about the different perspectives. Our communication has always been open. I then read the English Dinosaur a few times and felt involved with the translation process. Erín always explained to me her decisions or ideas generously. I learned a lot from those discussions. Also, we both decided to include some pictures – an iconic dinosaur from the Calgary Zoo, and a photo montage of our Dads after the postface. Then, Jay MillAr and Hazel MillAr at BookThug welcomed those propositions and the photograph by Dianne Chisholm – the luminous and melancholic landscape for the cover. Because a book is a combination of details, all those elements make me feel very close to Erín Moure’s work. But, even given this strong feeling, obviously it’s always special when a dinosaur speaks another language...

Your question makes me think of this anecdote. Recently, a friend of mine told me that he really read his book for the first time in English translation. He said that it was maybe the only way to feel a real distance from his work. That’s interesting – the idea of suddenly becoming a new reader of your own book, discovering other strategies... I can understand this posture, but it’s hard to explain.

Q: What authors have influenced the ways in which you put a manuscript together?

A: Well, many, I guess. It really depends on the book I’m working on. Because reading and writing are feeding each other, my projects are influenced by different perspectives. In my previous three books, I thank authors that, for one reason or another, are related to my writing process. For Cette maison n’est pas la mienne, W.G. Sebald has been essential; for My Dinosaur, Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles, for his particular lyrical way of writing about the father – and Les heures, by Fernand Ouellette. I have to say that Erín Moure’s books have a very special place in my bookshelves, as well as others by many innovative writers who open spaces between literary genres, playing with possibilities.

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

A: Julien Gracq’s books have always reenergized me; W.G. Sebald’s prose and narratives strategies (the way he explores archives, history, etc.) have been a crucial influence on my relation with literature; Hervé Bouchard’s “fictions” that hover between novel, theatre and poetry excite me; and all the eclectic work of Daniel Canty – a close friend of mine – with his “unclassifiable practice” and his great translations of Charles Simic, Erín Moure, Stephanie Bolster and Michael Ondaatje. Also, obviously, there is the work of many Quebec poets whom I have been following for a while – Martine Audet, Gilles Cyr, Nicole Brossard, Pierre Nepveu, Roger des Roches, Elise Turcotte, to name a few. And so many talented younger Quebec poets around me, for sure... But it’s funny, to really answer your question, even though I write poetry, fiction and prose authors still occupy a central place in my reading habits. One thing is clear to me: all is in the manner of telling and being told...

Thank you, rob, for this interview.

François Turcot
Montreal – Magdalen Islands, 2016

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

TtD supplement #56 : seven questions for Sarah Cook

Sarah Cook’s newest chapbook, You’re Just an Object To Me, appeared from our teeth press. Her work has recently appeared in The Feminist Wire and Illuminati Girl Gang. She is an Assistant Reviews & Interviews Editor for Horse Less Press.

An excerpt from her “LOVE POEMS” appears in the ninth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “LOVE POEMS.”

A: These poems started with a really basic conceit: I wanted to write one love poem a day for a whole month. I almost always fail at such structured goals, and so I wrote a small batch of them and then abandoned the project (though not the love itself!). Each poem starts with an epigraph from another poem I was reading, either recently or that day, and I like this method because I work well with prompts but not prescriptiveness. So a fragment from another poem becomes a way in, so to say, to a new one.

I’m working on these again because I’ve lately been reading, for example, Lorde’s discussion of the use of the erotic, and especially bell hooks’ philosophies about love. I feel in the midst of a new rush of poems, a continuation where I’m again using epigraphs but this time from prose sources. I don’t know yet if that will change the form of them but I find the idea of it exciting.

I came up with the title somewhat casually at the last minute, for the sake of naming the project, of calling its projected wholeness into being. But it’s probably not a coincidence that Anne Sexton’s book of the same name is very symbolically close to me at all times.

Q: Is working with and from prompts the way you usually compose? How is this current work different from the writing you’ve done prior?

A: I think I do often work from prompts, but I would clarify that most of the time that just means I read a lot. A few years ago, I had this very distinct realization that when I’m experiencing something like “writer’s block,” the trick for getting through that is not to push toward the writing but to read more & more & more.

I want to make this comparison with learning a foreign language: there is so much emphasis placed on speaking immediately that it sometimes hides how much work can be accomplished through active listening. I’m not a parent but don’t babies not talk right away? They’re just surrounded by language for a while, listening. When I surround myself with good poems and good poets, I find ideas or prompts—or I even just occasionally misread a line and then find myself writing the poem that follows.

So I guess my process of being prompted is really a development of my listening skills. Like, even if you’re not a student with homework and people telling you what to do, if you listen well enough you’ll find the things encouraging you to write in response to them. It reminds me of this great line by Ursula K. LeGuin: “Listening is not a reaction, it is a connection. Listening to a conversation or a story, we don’t so much respond as join in — become part of the action.”

Q: You mention Ursula K. LeGuin: what other writers or works have influenced the ways in which you work?

A: Maggie Nelson in a big big way. Kate Zambreno, Sawako Nakayasu (I want to say that Texture Notes was a kind of gateway book for me). Nicole Brossard and specifically this idea of the question(s) that the writer seeks and repeatedly comes back to. Anne Sexton was one of my entry points into the poetry world at a young age, and then I grew out of her, and then I came back to her with a totally different and complex relationship (like she went from being mother to friend). Eileen Myles, whose poems I love but Inferno might be my favorite thing ever. TC Tolbert. Kate Durbin, especially her performances/presentations of self, and her thinking around Lady Gaga. The original Gurlesque anthology was a huge thing for me to discover. A lot of writers whom I found in Women’s Studies classes: Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Judith Butler. Kristeva (and her discussions especially of cyclical vs. monolithic time—that’s an idea often present in my thinking). I think Julie Choffel’s poem, “Serenade, or After Others,” is an example of a truly perfect poem. Diane Arbus—not just her photographs but her texts, her journals—she is a model of thinking for me right now.

Q: After a couple chapbooks over the past five or so years, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: I’m definitely more and more invested in projects, in serial works and the building of little interdependent poemworlds, versus one-offs or things that may work primarily in isolation. I find myself using the space of the poem as a space for thinking through, for asking questions and circling around ideas repeatedly and retracing my steps. I think my poems are becoming more essay-like and my essays more poem-like.

Maggie Nelson talks about knowing the real limitations of language (informed by Wittgenstein), but believing, somewhat romantically, that words are still good enough. I’d like to get to the point where I really know in a big way that to say “words are good enough” and “words aren't good enough” is basically the same thing.

Q: You speak of a kind of meeting-place between “knowing” and “unknowing,” almost as though you prefer working intuitively, but after an enormous amount of reading, research and thought. Fred Wah has referred to composing as a kind of “drunken tai chi,” wishing to slightly throw himself off-balance to keep his skills sharp, but not stringently so. How do you find your own balance between the two?

A: I like this question and it makes me nervous. I talk a lot about being interested in failure, contradiction, ambiguity, but I think constructed failing is much different than actually finding that tenuous space between balance and falling over. I mean, to theorize about the body and intimacy, and to study & read & consume & think, is not the same as actually opening up and being vulnerable. Have you ever tried to fall over—like, pretended to fall for humor? & then have you ever tried to balance your body at the farthest edge of its tipping point? Maybe not actually ever falling down, but feeling your body get close, and that sudden spring of catching yourself? In my experience, the latter is much more frightening—even if you never touch the ground—and tells you a lot more about what it means to find your “safe edge” (thank you, TC).

I have the urge here to quote Mary Ruefle: “You simply cannot learn and know at the same time, and this is a frustration all artists must bear.” I think the process of learning is a lot less stable than how we sometimes conceive of it, growing up in school settings where learning often looks like memorizing and repeating things back to the teacher that you've already heard. Perhaps when we’re the most open to learning, we’re not only starting from a space of unknowing, but entering further into one as well. But that takes courage. I’m an adult and it’s so so hard to be brave. You have to be willing to explode. And that willingness is so much more difficult to achieve than the exploding itself.

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

A: A lot of people I’ve already mentioned would come up again here. But so many things besides reading reenergize my work: hiking, especially thinking while moving/walking; being around animals; cutting my hair; being near water; roller-blading. Taking instant photos, or just analogue photographs in general. Going on dates with my boyfriend. All these things reenergize my living, and how I move through space, which is how I write. In fact, remembering that my writing life encompasses all of my life is in itself a rejuvenating (and usually difficult) act, it helps facilitate the (self-)permission needed to live how I’d like to write, and vice versa: a lot of stretching, growing bigger; a lot of questions, and leaning into fear rather than away from it.

But also: the amount of times I’ve come back to Anne’s transformation of Rumpelstiltskin:
He laid his two sides down on the floor,
one part soft as a woman,
one part a barbed hook,
one part papa,
one part Doppelganger.

Monday, June 6, 2016

TtD supplement #55 : seven questions for Gregory Betts

Gregory Betts is the author of Boycott (2014), and many other various and sundry items. He is the curator of the online archive at bpNichol.ca, which is all set to rise from the digital dust, and will soon. He lives in St. Catharines with his flower and bee allergies.

His poems “Autopoesy,” “¿Christian Bök?” and “What is the fourth person?” appear in the ninth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “Autopoesy,” “¿Christian Bök?” and “What is the fourth person?.”

A: “Autopoesy” is a response poem to Christian Bök’s poem “The Extremophile” from The Xenotext, which ends with these superbugs escalating in badassness until his conclusion where “they await your experiments.” I want to think about them outside of their function for human use, though, which means recognizing in them the defeat of human language; a place that is inaccessible to our projections. Language can take us to that point, but does not have to turn around and flatter us for reaching our personal best.

“¿Christian Bök?” is not a question for Christian, but a question of language, names, and limits. I also recognize that these writers have approached similar questions about the limits of language from very different perspectives. It is also an acknowledgement that Margaret Atwood has already written a book about the projection of human technology to the point where they (our machinic other, our aliens) do not need us anymore, and certainly do not await our experiments. The longer I spend in CanLit, the more I realize that the answer is almost always “Margaret Atwood”; and the question too.

“What is the fourth person?” is culled from a series of questions my 4 year old son asks me every night before bedtime. He gets one such question a day and we discuss it at length, so he chooses carefully. These questions are taken in sequence over the course of three weeks; they are the probes of a learning imagination sent out over a room, a country, a planet, a universe.

Q: How do these poems fit with some of the other work you’ve been doing lately? Would these pieces be considered “occasionals,” or are they potentially part of some larger construction?

A: They are occasional pieces, responses to my daily life and current reading. They fit in with the ongoing arc of my work lately though, including an essay on the same theme called “I Object: Writing Against the Contemporary.” https://ejournals.library.ualberta.ca/index.php/ESC/article/viewFile/25505/18783

Q: Your essay speaks to a shift from human creation to “inhuman artifice,” and writing the impossible; beyond lyric into metapoetry and other attempts at reducing and even erasing the authorial self. How do you feel these poems fit into that attempt at a “post-post-language” (or whatever it is you might wish to call it), and how well do you think they have achieved some of these goals? Just where do you see this new way of seeing writing headed?

A: Well, it’s an oxymoron, of course, to write a poem beyond human language. It’s like my old joke to invite people to name me one thing you cannot say. But given the climate crisis, the total and ruinous domination of humans over the entire planet (nothing is wilderness, everything is permitted), it behooves us to shift the nonhuman into the forefront of our consciousness. I’ve been working on the role of humour, especially nervous laughter, in this kind of self-consciousness – and I suppose I see these poems in that context. In this, I follow Wyndham Lewis’ formula for humour as either humans behaving like machines or machines behaving like humans. Except I’m not looking for a redemption of the categorical human, more like the dispensation of our rule. Back in 1999, I had the opportunity to study with Toby Foshay, one of the world’s top scholars on Wyndham Lewis, who was at the time training to be an eastern orthodox monk. He said of that line by Lewis that in our nervous laughing we can feel the abyss barely held at bay.

Q: I’m curious at your exploration of humour. Contemporary poetry has always had an uneasy relationship with humour, in any form, often to the point of dismissal. Why do you think that is? Or do you even agree? Is this something you’re conscious of?

A: I’m not sure I fully agree; the heirs of the contemporary lit that I value held Charlie Chaplin as a champion proto-avant-gardist every bit as much as the Marquis de Sade. The line between jokes, pranks, and literary experiments has always been a fine and fading one. Is a published blank book really that different from a recorded crank call? One of our top contemporary poets collected and sorted boxes of Alpha-Bits, categorized them and pinned them into an entomologist's cabinet. Another poet spilled a box of Alpha-Bits onto the floor of a poetry reading, rolled around in them naked, and then “read” the letters stuck onto his body. Twee! There are half-a-dozen contemporary poets with one foot in literature, one foot in stand-up comedy, and one foot in blown metaphors. And even beyond the humour that laughs at the world as it is, at its failures and foibles, I’m particularly drawn to a kind of laughter that does not attempt to resolve or overcome difference, that takes pleasure in the collapse of systems, and points at the mess with scatological glee.

Q: Isn’t there an inherent irony to constructing writing on the collapse of systems? Does that make the work you’ve been doing lately a series of gestures on collapse, reconstruction or repurposing?

A: Inasmuch as irony signals a schism between the message and the meaning, all poetry is ironic. It’s the solitary, consistent mark of difference of a poem from a recipe. But it isn’t just the collapse of systems by itself that I’m interested in — it’s the double vision, the rubble and the edifice, intertwined, suggested by each other. The human and the machine, the way we constantly move back and forth. McLuhan writes about clichés as an internal technology through which discourse hardens and accelerates the reception of shared knowledge. Our experience in the world ossifies, in other words, into technology even as we glean the world through such ideational devices. Lewis’ notion of humour is latent in every daily experience.

Q: After a small handful of books and chapbooks under your belt, how do you feel your work has developed? You say these poems fit within the current arc of your work generally – both critical and creative – but where do you see your work heading? What are you attempting to move away from?

A: I wouldn’t say I’m going in any specific direction, as if I was trying to go somewhere. I try to keep myself open to learning, and my writing changes as I do. From If Language on, though, I’ve always been interested in how we speak through each other’s words. I’ve been moving away from literary lineages, though, and become increasingly interested in public language and the building of public resistance movements. My Boycott book, for instance, looks at the rather vacuous and highly repetitive language of boycott movements around the world, including from all political orientations. It seems appropriate that there is a hollowness in the language of strategic withdrawal, a shared screech of outrage and overstated piety, but I am myself a boycotter of various things and so admire the earnestness motivating even fallow words. It is one of the few political mechanisms left to the general public that consistently works. It is also, however, a tool only available to people with money enough to withhold, so it is deeply entrenched within existing power politics. So while I have been previously interested in how something radical could be said in and even against the general economy of language, I have become increasingly interested in the extensions of that into public and political spheres.

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

A: Every year I read at least one new Margaret Atwood book, mainly because she has written a new book in every year of my reading life. I keep coming back to Sheila Watson and Marshall McLuhan, both of whose work touch on such rich veins of myth and apocalypse, ritual and the hint of redemption. Borges, Blake, and Neruda keep cycling back, as does my first literary love with Dostoevsky. If I had to pin my reading down to one author, though, in some kind of awful hypothetical exercise, I would stick with bpNichol. I don’t love or even like everything he wrote, but I deeply admire his engagement with theory, philosophy, and myth, his realization of astonishingly twisted ideas, and his commitment to building experimental, interdisciplinary literary communities. You can feel those aspects ripple through all of his works, and they are like arrows of possible directions for more, weirder, smarter works.