Camille Martin is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Sonnets (2010) and Looms (2012), both from Shearsman Books. Two chapbooks appeared from above/ground press: If Leaf, Then Arpeggio (2011) and Sugar Beach (2013). She has presented her poetry in more than thirty cities in Canada, the United States, Ireland, the United Kingdom, and France. She makes her home in Toronto.
Her poem “Page Dust for Will” appears in the first issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: In “Page Dust for Will,” you’re working again with the sonnet. After working on the full-length collection, Sonnets, what is it about the form that continues to draw you in?
A: My poems in Touch the Donkey might give the impression that I’m obsessively writing sonnets! But in reality since the publication of Sonnets in 2010, I’ve written very few of them. “Page Dust for Will” (two sonnets and a villanelle) emerged from a five-week historical and creative course on the sonnet that I taught for the Toronto New School of Writing in 2011. Whenever I conduct a workshop, I do the creative assignments along with the participants. I wrote these poems in response to my prompt to write sonnets in dialogue with the sonnets of another poet.
Q: Who was the other poet?
A: The workshop participants could choose any poet they wished. Since we were reading and discussing Shakespeare’s sonnets, I decided to engage in a poetic dialogue with Shakespeare. The first sonnet in “Page Dust for Will” riffs on Shakespeare’s anti-blason of Sonnet 130 (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.”), keeping something of its syntax and argument but changing the subject matter (“My window’s view is nothing like a panorama . . .”). For the second sonnet, I used a concordance of Shakespeare’s sonnets to find instances of colours (golden, black, violet, green, etc.) and their surrounding words in order to weave a narrative—a sort of cento of Shakespearean colours. The villanelle is also a cento, a meditation on impermanence using lines from Shakespeare’s sonnets; the refrain “But earth devours her own brood” is borrowed from Sonnet 19.
Writing these poems and hearing the workshop participants’ takes on the prompt confirmed for me the idea of the sonnet as a form in dialogue with its own history.
Q: Your trade collections so far appear to be book-length accumulations of shorter lyric poems, stitched and even collaged together to form a larger coherent unit. What does your process of putting together a trade collection usually look like, and what are you working on currently that “Page Dust for Will” might end up being a part?
A: Each of my books seems to find its own centripetal pull. Sometimes it’s formal, as in Sonnets (a book of variations on the form), or as in R Is the Artichoke of Rose (a collection of short-short poems). And sometimes it’s thematic—even if loosely so—as in Codes of Public Sleep, in its way a tale of two very different cities (New Orleans and Toronto).
“Page Dust for Will” will probably be woven into a manuscript with the working title Blueshift Road, some of whose poems find their inspiration in the sciences, especially astronomy.
If you were to visit me while I’m shaping the poems into a book, you’d have difficulty navigating my living room—I spread the poems out on the floor so I can see the flow of the whole. I often think musically for the sounds of poems as well as for the structure of the whole, so that there may be elements of the first movement of a classical sonata form (exposition, development, and recapitulation), or of movements of a symphony (adagio, scherzo, etc.), or of a theme and variations. I don’t think it’s necessary for the work to be perceived as such, but I often think of structure in terms of musical processes.
Q: You’ve discussed before your years of musical training, having studied classical piano from an early age through to your mid-twenties. Your practice seems very much a blending of arts, from the musical structures that fall into your writing, to the collage-works that often grace your book covers, and some of this might explain why your compositional process and your finished work give the appearance of being a series of physical acts. What is it about the blending of practices that appeals, and what do you think it brings to your work?
A: To say that such blending appeals to me might perhaps attribute too much conscious choice to the matter. Translation between artistic disciplines such as poetry and music is mysterious to me, yet it’s the most natural and common thing in the world. Songs combine music and words, for example, and spoken language is naturally rhythmic and melodic. I started writing poetry after many years of musical training as a pianist and of reading poetry. I was aware that there might be some transferal of music into my poetry, and I gradually became conscious of some of the possibilities. When I wrote the phrase “like knots in a magician’s scarf,” the rhythm seemed to have a syncopated, almost jazzy rhythm (to my ears, anyway). The qualities of vowels and consonants resonate somewhat like the timbres of different musical instruments, and their combination becomes a kind of orchestration. Some aspects of music, such as sympathetic vibrations or polyphony, translate more figuratively than literally into poetry. And I have a feeling that some specific parallels that I sense are rather idiosyncratic to my own weird brain. Still, they provide a way for me to imagine language as musical.
On a more obvious level of such transferal, I’ve set some of my sonnets to music as a song cycle for soprano with piano accompaniment.
Q: I can’t imagine anyone who doesn’t understand language as being inherently musical. You’ve written a few times on musicality and poetry, suggesting that your writing is composed as an intricate blend of musicality and meaning. Is that a fair assessment?
A. Having a background in music has helped me to express ways in which poetry that I appreciate is musical, as in my essay on Barbara Guest, and ways in which music has influenced me as a poet. Music isn’t normally something I consciously think about as I write poetry—I’m not sure I’d even say that it’s an essence of my work. In any case, I’m suspicious of essences. I’ve written about other aspects of poetry that are as important to me as a poet and literary writer.
Q: Your poems in the first issue of Touch the Donkey are composed as two sonnets and a villanelle. What is it about returning to the classical forms that appeals, and what others have you attempted?
A: As I mentioned earlier, my three poems in Touch the Donkey were written for a class I taught on the sonnet four years ago, shortly after the publication of Sonnets. So they were written for a specific occasion, and it didn’t feel like a return, at least not in any sustained way. By then I was immersed in other projects. With the exception of my book of sonnets and the odd pantoum or sestina, the vast majority of my poems are not written in received forms.
Q: After four trade collections over the space of a decade, how do you feel your work has developed?
A. I can see shifts from one period in my life to the next, as well as from one book to the next. In earlier work I was doing more with translations of various kinds, such as phonetic and thesaurus-generated translations of various source texts—among other kinds of processes. It was liberating for me to use as a springboard the lists of poetry experiments by Bernadette Mayer and Charles Bernstein, which were to me an invitation to play and to expand the possibilities of poetic language. From Sonnets to Looms there is a general shift from lyric to narrative modes. My current manuscript, R Is the Artichoke of Rose is a collection of minimalist poems. Blueshift Road returns to the relatively short lyric with inspiration from science and pop culture. And if I ever finish it, The Evangeline Papers will explore my Cajun/Acadian heritage.
Throughout these changes, I can see a thematic continuity, which I think of as a challenge to various habits of thought and being: cognitive processes, memory, identity, and perception. Immersing myself in studies of correspondences between poetry and cognitive science while writing my dissertation was an enormous influence on some of the themes I’ve explored during the past decade.
Sunday, June 22, 2014
Wednesday, June 11, 2014
Gil McElroy is the author of five chapbooks with above/ground press, including Echolocations (1/2 of STANZAS #5, 1995), Some Julian Days (1999), Meteor Showers: A Descriptive Catalogue (STANZAS #31, 2002), (The Work of Art) In the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (2005) and Twentieth (2013).
He lives in the village of Colborne, Ontario.
Three poems from “Some Doxologies” appear in the first issue of Touch the Donkey, with two more scheduled to appear in the third issue.
Q: “Some Doxologies” appears to be an extension of the “The Julian Days” poems. In your mind, what is the distinction between this new work and what came before?
A: “Doxologies” didn’t begin as an extension of The Julian Days, but as I worked into it I found it began to function as a kind of subset of that open-ended poem sequence; the new poems have become daily poems. The pieces comprising The Julian Days jump about hither and yon, abruptly shifting in tone, mood, and subject from one poem in the sequence to the other. There’s nothing intentionally binding one to another beyond the conceit of the dating system and the fact that they are, indeed, daily poems. Doxologies, on the other hand, is perhaps more compressed and intentional in mood and focus, When I sent out one as a New Year’s gift, I actually had someone contact me and ask me if I was okay, It had never occurred to me that there was, say, some bleakness to the pieces. But she picked up on it right away, and responded immediately to that (and bless her for her concern). If there is indeed bleakness, it’s not formally or structurally intentional, but I guess simply responsive. They are, as per the title, intended as kinds of prayers, though not in an overtly religious or spiritual manner, and prayers are responsive things.
Q: The “Julian Days” poems have been included as sections in all four of your poetry collections. What originally prompted the series, and how do you think the series has evolved over the years? Where do you think it might be headed?
A: I’d been making attempts at some variation on the “day book” (for lack of a better term) for a while, and nothing quite gelled. The penultimate version was entitled “dd/mm/yy,” but it failed as well (though a few poems from it were eventually incorporated into The Julian Days.
What I’d been trying to avoid was some kind of totalizing calendrical specificity, wanting not to strongly and indelibly link a poem to a specific day, and yet somehow, in a subtler way, incorporating or creating or merely just suggesting the notion of that kind of linkage. I wanted the poem to be able to stand aside and away and on its own, without the day of composition ruling supreme. And I’d about given up when The Julian Day system suggested itself. I have an abiding interest in astronomy and cosmology, and the Julian Date (essentially an arithmetical accumulation of all the days that have amassed since January 1st, 4713 BCE) is commonly used by astronomers to date celestial events like the brightening or fading of variable stars. Perfect! A number creates enough abstraction that I could date the poems without permitting those dates to dominate them (and there are websites where you can plug the Julian Date in and get the day of the civil, everyday calendar – or vice versa).
There really is no “headed” for the series. It’s open-ended on either side of the timeline (I have worked backwards into it), and will presumably end if I die or get bored of it. I think there’s a fair amount of variation amongst individual poems, reflective no doubt of where I was/am/will be when I contribute pieces to it. “Doxologies” is the first significant sub-unit within the series, though “I/O: A Colborne Psalter” started out as a number of Julian Days.
Q: You’ve been writing and publishing since the 1970s. Is the process any different for you now than it was then?
A: I no longer have a manual typewriter, and my beloved IBM Selectric is, alas, toast. And I no longer use cheap yellow paper to do my drafts on. And I don’'t smoke anymore. And my hair is shorter (though in my mind, it is forever waist-length, and much thicker).
I guess other than that my working methodology hasn’t changed much. I still keep notebooks and rather than writing until five in the morning, I get up at 4 a.m. to write before the day gets out of my hands. Precious time.
Q: Are you suggesting there’s no real difference? How do you feel your writing has developed over the space of some three-plus decades of activity, or is everything you do, perhaps, part of a single, extended trajectory?
A: In the late 1970s/early 1980s, I was working very hard at not feeling anything at all – or at least, as little as I possibly could. I won’t get into the specifics of why, but if the right drug had been made available to me then, I think would probably have worked my way into it. Thankfully it wasn’t. So I was on my own in terms of trying hard to cut myself off from what I felt. And my poems at the time were extremely reflective of that process of attempted disengagement – clinical, detached, airless, compressed to the point of near extinction so as to try and wring out any possible emotional response I might have tried to show. And much of it got published in magazines of the period.
By the mid-1980s, I stopped trying to do all of that, and began opening some doors, airing out the proverbial sheets, allowing myself to experience and feel and basically become human again. I re-discovered my heart, and the poems that came obviously changed in sync with that opening; much of the work in Dream Pool Essays, my first book, was written in that period.
So I guess I wouldn’t think of things as a single, extended trajectory; while I don’t disavow the poems of non-feeling (they are, after all, a part of who I was), I place them a bit apart and aside. They’re their own mini-trajectory that had nowhere to go but extinction.
Q: What is your relationship to the poetic fragment?
A: I’m not at all sure I understand what you mean. I guess I tend to write towards the whole, and not in fragmentary isolation – if that is in any way addressing your question.
My notes are full of lines – things I’ve mis-heard, mis-read, lines I just randomly generate in a frenzy of surrealist free-association on paper. I do that in bursts, accumulate things, and later – sometimes decades later – I go back and mine into it, finding a line that acts as a trigger for other lines.
The individual lines themselves mean nothing, though I sometimes use them in visual work or even as my Twitter postings, enigmatic, out-of-context fragments of text that might tease or annoy or totally vex.
Maybe that’s the closest I can get to answering your question.
Q: Is the collection and accumulation of sketched lines a normal part of your compositional process or simply one of a number of your processes?
A: It’s the primary compositional process I employ. There are others, but they are usually project-oriented, and don’t extend beyond the work at hand. The notebooks of accumulated lines stand on their own – I keep the old ones close at hand and use them regularly, and have two notebooks on the go at all times. Virtually everything comes out of them, even the fewer “I did this/I did that” poems (usually in The Julian Days) come from notes of things that happened. But the notebooks are mainly comprised of free-associated lines.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: Tender Buttons.
Paul Eluard. The Surrealists in general, my first major influence when I began taking poetry seriously.
Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley – turned onto by the good folks at Printed Passage Books in Kingston when I was at university, and still love.
But mainly oodles of non-fiction, primarily in the fields of cosmology and astrophysics. Incredible stuff that can't help but change how you perceive the world. And really, isn’t that what it’s all about?