Thursday, March 8, 2018

TtD supplement #98: seven questions for Anthony Etherin

Anthony Etherin is a UK-based writer of constrained, formal and experimental poetry. His poems have appeared online in The Account, Cordite Poetry Review and Nagari, among others, and he has had leaflets or chapbooks published by No Press, Spacecraft Press, Timglaset, and The Blasted Tree. He runs Penteract Press, a small press publishing poetry with an emphasis on structure. Find him on twitter, @Anthony_Etherin, and via anthonyetherin.wordpress.com.

His poems “Dracula (Palindrome-Sonnet)” and “Frankenstein (Anagram-Sonnet)” appear in the sixteenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “Dracula (Palindrome-Sonnet)” and “Frankenstein (Anagram-Sonnet).”

A: Over the last few years, I’ve experimented with a variety of styles of anagrammatic and palindromic poetry. Combining these constraints with the sonnet form is a particular favourite—its metrical and formal requirements make it a real challenge, but it’s not so lengthy or complex that it becomes unwieldy.

The palindromic sonnet, “Dracula”, was pieced together from a number of words abstracted from, or relating to, Stoker’s novel: Vampire, Mina, castle, etc. In general, I like my palindromes to exploit their subject’s unique vocabulary: Distinctive proper nouns, for instance, can, upon reversal, offer up phrases not otherwise palindromable. They keep things interesting.

Similarly, with “Frankenstein”, whose lines are perfect anagrams of each other, I began with a set of letters carefully chosen to feature specific words and phrases: Frankenstein, Prometheus, creature, and so on. It was then a case of taking these phrases and, using the remaining matter, stitching together a fitting commentary on the subject.

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

A: I do seem to have been writing a lot lately about nineteenth-century literature, for some reason: I had a small chapbook of poems based on the romantic poets published by No Press in January 2017, and my leaflet “The White Whale” presents two anagrammed palindromes on the subject of Moby Dick. “Frankenstein” and “Dracula” continue this (mostly unintentional) trend.

Stylistically, I am currently exploring how palindromes and anagrams interact with different traditional forms, and with each other. In addition to “The White Whale”, my leaflets via Penteract Press present a palindromic rondel and a palindromic sestina. My chapbook from No Press features mostly anagrammatic triolets. My current trajectory appears to be toward increasingly severe restrictions of this kind.

Q: What is it about working with such constraints appeals? I’ve at least a few friends who claim that the sonnet, for example, is an endlessly mutable form. What is it you feel working in such forms allow that wouldn’t be possible otherwise?

A: I enjoy the interplay between freedom and restriction, between what I intend to say and what I’m forced into saying—that is, between creation and (in a sense) discovery. I find it fun, and I think it produces interesting results: moments of uncanniness; curious images or turns of phrase that I would otherwise not think up.

The greatest constrained poems are always those which, despite themselves, manage to produce moments of melody and meaning. With simpler, non-combinatorial constraints, it is, in fact, quite possible to produce meaningful, lyric works—to, in a sense, ‘hide’ the constraint. Naturally, the more severe the rules, the harder this becomes, and one must make compromises between the traditional virtues of poetry and the more conceptual aesthetic of the restriction itself. It’s not always easy abandoning lyricism in service of the constraint; however, neither would I be satisfied abandoning the latter for the former. (Lyrical ‘flaws’ are, one might argue, not necessarily flaws when in service of a structural ideal.) So, at least in more advanced combinatorial constraints, there’s an aesthetic negotiation between concept and content going on, which I find compelling.

You mention the mutability of forms like the sonnet, and the same is true of stricter constraints. Despite the strictures of palindromism (for example) every palindromist I know has a different and distinctive “voice”—which is quite remarkable: No matter the limitations we impose, individuality finds a way through.

Q: With a small handful of leaflets and chapbooks under your belt, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: I’ve been very prolific over the last two years, and that’s mostly down to the confidence I’ve gained from the way people have responded to my work. It has allowed me to take more risks—to see how far I can push things structurally. That said, I feel that some of the things I am currently working on are taking lettristic restrictions about as far as I am willing to go—so, my plan, when this particular journey ends, is to loosen my shackles a little. I’d also like to compose more concrete poetry.

Q: Who have been your models so far for creating work? What authors have prompted you to rethink the ways in which you compose?

A: I enjoy most styles of poetry, and I have many influences, both avant-garde and traditional. Thematically, I like the scientific and the metaphysical—Borges is a huge influence. However, I also have a fondness for romantic and pastoral themes. Stylistically, I am influenced by writers willing to take those more daring excursions into formal experimentation. Georges Perec immediately comes to mind.

Among current writers, my biggest influence is Christian Bök, who continues to produce fascinating and brilliant work. I’ve been fortunate enough to get to know him, over this last year, and it’s great how supportive he’s been of my poetry. Another Canadian poet, Derek Beaulieu, has been very supportive and influential too, in particular while establishing my micropress, Penteract Press—a venture that has itself had a surprisingly significant impact on how I approach and compose poems.

Q: After putting together pamphlets and chapbook manuscripts, what is your process of putting together a full-length manuscript? What are the challenges?

A: I like working on short and detailed projects. I’m able to concentrate for long periods of time; however, I’m always in a rush to get things finished. I’m obsessive, but I’m also very impatient. In this regard, pamphlet-sized projects suit me well. I guess, the challenges of writing a full-length manuscript are to avoid becoming too distracted by new ideas, and to commit to creating a set of thematically similar or interconnected works, rather than a loose assemblage of disparate projects.

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

A: I’m reenergised by interesting ideas; theories of art and science are a constant source of inspiration, as are poems and novels of a meditative or philosophical nature—I’ve already mentioned Moby Dick, which is a good example. I’ve also mentioned Borges: While maybe not Borges’ best work, Dreamtigers, his collection of concise meditations, is a book I frequently dip into.

Other times, I’ll turn to the work of other constrained poets, such as Bök and the Oulipo. (Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities is, like Dreamtigers, rarely out of reach.) There’s also the work of contemporaries elsewhere in the avant-garde, and the poetry flowing through my twitter timeline. I don’t lack inspiration, these days.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

TtD supplement #97 : seven questions for Catriona Strang

Catriona Strang’s latest book is Reveries of a Solitary Biker (Talon 2017); she recently edited The Gorge: Selected Writings of Nancy Shaw (Talon, 2017). She frequently collaborates with musicians and other writers. She is the former editor of The Capilano Review and Mum to two kids. She lives in Vancouver on unceded Coast Salish territory.

Her poem “On Not Looking Into Chapman’s Homer, gleanings for Louis Cabri” appears in the sixteenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “On Not Looking Into Chapman’s Homer, gleanings for Louis Cabri.”

A: I was visiting my friends Louis Cabri and Nicole Marcotić last summer here in Vancouver, saw a copy of Chapman’s Homer lying around, and made a weak joke about how I should write “On Not Looking Into Chapman’s Homer”. And then I did. At the time I was reading quite a lot about caring labour and its continued invisibility, and about value and value-formation, which I used in the piece.

I also bike around Vancouver a lot, and often check our network of book exchanges while doing so. I love book exchanges, and got a city grant to put one up on our street, which our neighbour, the sculptor Juga Kitanovic, built. I think it’s the most wonderful book exchange in town. I can send you a picture if you like. Anyway, I’ve found some great stuff in book exchanges over the years, including books on women’s labour in the 19th century and lots of weird old recipe pamphlets with wonderful mid-century graphics. I've been wanting to do something with them for ages. “On Not Looking” is what happened when I combined those book exchange finds with my reading on caring labour and value.

Q: How does this compare to the other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: It’s a continuation of the work I’ve been doing lately; in fact, it’s the epilogue to a larger work entitled Reveries of a Solitary Biker, a response to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Reveries of the Solitary Walker in the form of a deck of cards set to music, which was published by Talon last fall.  I think “Chapman’s Homer” is less sparse and more direct than the rest of my Reveries poems, though, but like them it is also directly related to my experiences as a care provider, whose work is for the most part invisible and undervalued, even by me.

Q: I’m curious in your work composed as responses to other work. Corked (Talonbooks, 2014), for example, was composed as “poetic responses to Proust.” What is it about the “response” that appeals, and why the response to specific literary works? What is it that drives you to respond to such works, in such ways?

A: Isn’t thought embedded in language? Isn’t reading thinking? And aren’t we always in some kind of conversation with our colleagues, our friends, the writers we’re reading? So for me a response is a way of carrying on that conversation, of moving through thinking in writing. With Corked, I had things I really wanted to talk to Proust about directly (I mean, there are issues there, particularly for female readers) so I wrote to him. But my newer work, Reveries of a Solitary Biker, is not solely or primarily a conversation with Rousseau; my Reveries use his as a starting point, and in some ways ape its form – the playing cards in the pocket, the “aimless” wandering, the simultaneous interrogation of the self and of the self’s social construction. But to return to your question, I’d say I’m driven to respond as a way of continuing the conversation, if that makes sense.

Q: Given your four published books, how do you feel your work has progressed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: Progressed, hey? It’s certainly changed, but I don’t know about progression. I’ll have to think about what’s changed and get back to you. But I can tell you that I’ve no idea where it might be headed.

Q: Is that deliberate on your part? Is your writing moving intuitively, then, towards and through what interests you at any given time?

A: Hmm. I don’t really know how to answer this question. Yes, of course, for me writing is a way of thinking through my current concerns. But it also forms them. Lately my writing has also been a means of examining, unpicking, and maybe even defending my life choices, which is new for me. But I think I’m done with that for now. I don’t know what will come next. I'm currently in a lull. They can last for a while. For now I’ll read.

Q: I’m curious about what you mean by that, “defending your life choices.” Can you speak to that at all?

A: Sure. I’m referring to my choice to carry out reproductive and caring labour for the last two decades, labour that remains largely outside the realm of exchange, and is therefore unremunerated and invisible. I’ve been reading a lot about this lately, but I've been living it for much longer.

Q: Do you tend to move quickly from project to project in a linear fashion, or do projects overlap? How do books get made?

A: I don’t move quickly at all! I’m a slow writer, and I read a lot for projects. I’m usually working on one project at a time, for at least a couple of years at a time. I might write the odd bit of occasional verse every now and then, but even those seem to reflect or partake in my current concerns. I tend to gather masses of notes, and then start trying to see what might happen with them, while continuing to read.

I find that deadlines help books get made. My neighbour, the visual artist Kelly Haydon, offered to be my “deadline” when I was writing Corked. I had to show her a new poem every week. If I didn’t, I had to make a donation to the Christian Heritage Party. I had to beg for extensions a few times, but that really got me working steadily! This was after I’d amassed a lot of notes and needed to start working with them, and stop getting distracted by more books, or my garden, or cooking, or knitting, or my kids…there’s always something else that needs doing.

With that threat hanging over me, I never missed a deadline…

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

A: Oooh, I don’t like this question. Answers to it have a tendency to turn into a kind of public performance of self. I read all the time, for solace, for pleasure, for comfort, for research, for clarification, for inspiration, for focus, as a means of thinking through our shared confusion. Late at night I often read 19th century novels.

Monday, February 19, 2018

TtD supplement #96 : seven questions for A.M. O’Malley

A.M. O’Malley’s poems have most recently been published in several print and online publications including Gramma, Poor Claudia, The Nervous Breakdown, The Newer York and The Portland Review. Ms. O’Malley teaches writing and book arts at Portland Community College and is the Executive Director of a small literary arts nonprofit called The Independent Publishing Resource Center (www.iprc.org) in Portland, OR.

Six poems in her work-in-progress “DEAR BROTHER” appear in the sixteenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the six “DEAR BROTHER” poems included here.

A: The poems are an excerpt from a book length epistolary to my baby brother who was deprived of oxygen at birth and was brain damaged as a result. The poems are each parts of a larger narrative from me to him.

Q: Do you see these poems as a conversation you’re having with him, or as homage? Or even both? What have been your models, if any, when working this project?

A: The poems are a conversation with him that I can’t actually have in real life. A huge inspiration for me was NOX by Anne Carson and Bluets by Maggie Nelson.

Q: How do the poems in this project compare or relate to your other work?

A: I have never written in this epistolary form before but as is true with all my work I find that the form found me. I have never been one to pound language into form. I tend to start writing and let the form take hold.

Q: If not epistolary, what forms have you worked prior? And, given the epistolary is something you’ve only recently begun to explore, have there been any surprises in working with the form?

A: Much of my work defies easy categorization. I am a poet who often writes prose; a memoirist who writes evocative, lyrical passages that can only be called poetry. My first book, Expecting Something Else, was considered by some to be memoir and by others to be poetry. I think that genre is a generality, like gender, and generalities are often boring. The epistolary form provided me with an immediate intimacy and an ability to tell a story from the middle or the end or wherever else I deemed fit.

Q: You mention Anne Carson and Maggie Nelson; what other writers or works have been important to your work?

A: Yes, I am a deep admirer of Anne Carson, Maggie Nelson but I would also want to credit Eileen Myles, Mary Karr, Jenny Boully, Brenda Shaughnessy and Claudia Rankine—all of whom achieve what I want in terms of genre-bending and getting at the personal through means other than memoir.

Q: I’m curious: what made you approach this project as a loose suite of self-contained poems, each sharing the same title?

A: The poems are meant as a one sided correspondence. So, the “title” is really just the salutation one would find on any poem. And, like all letters, the poems meander and go in and out of time and subject.

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

A: The authors I just named (Maggie Nelson, Anne Carson, Claudia Rankine). The particular works I revisit are Bluets, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Nox, Autobiography of Red & Argonauts are all touchstones for me.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

TtD supplement #95 : seven questions for Julia Polyck-O'Neill

Julia Polyck-O’Neill is an artist, curator, critic, and writer. She is a doctoral candidate in Brock University’s Interdisciplinary Humanities program (Culture and Aesthetics), where she is completing a SSHRC-funded interdisciplinary and comparative critical study of contemporary conceptualist literature and art in Vancouver. She has taught in contemporary visual culture in the department of Visual Arts at the Marilyn I. Walker School, and is currently a visiting lecturer at the Obama Institute for Transnational American Studies at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. She also curates the award-winning Borderblur Reading Series in St Catharines. Her writing has been published in B.C. Studies, Feminist Spaces, Tripwire, Fermenting Feminisms (a project of the Laboratory for Aesthetics and Ecology, curated by Lauren Fournier), and The Avant Canada Anthology (WLU Press, 2017), and her debut chapbook, femme, was published in 2016 by above/ground press.

Her poems “on not wanting to sink.,” “optics make marks,” “blank Plath,” “new blank” and “for a video against the mythology of everyday life” appear in the sixteenth issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about the poems “on not wanting to sink.,” “optics make marks,” “blank Plath,” “new blank” and “for a video against the mythology of everyday life.”

A: I’m very interested in the ways that visual and literary texts interact, and how visual narratives or phenomena might be translated to writing. The concepts of intermediality and interdisciplinarity are important in my writing practice more broadly (as someone studying conceptualist art and writing), but in my poetry, I’m often dealing with the challenges of using language to represent visual ideas and phenomena; I’m intrigued by the idea of the indirect path between mediums. (I hesitate to refer to this as translation; it’s more of a conversation. It’s necessarily hazier.) This is at once a simple and frustratingly complicated exercise, as it builds from the history of representational codes and the ways that language and its structures often fail to account for the nuance of the visual, and also for lived experience. At the same time, I’m working through a politics of gender inbuilt within these representational codes, mainly in that I prioritize women’s texts as my primary sources. In my writing, I attempt to encounter the affect of working through theory and poetry in women’s writing and in my own praxis. As well, I pay attention to the embodied struggle of working between visual and literary texts, as recorded in these writings or in my own experience as an emerging scholar and writer. These poems are about the feminine self as a body working, performing. I want to draw attention to the (often visceral) labour inherent to feminist thinking and writing.

My poems, “on not wanting to sink.,” “optics make marks,” “blank Plath,” “new blank,” and “for a video against the mythology of everyday life,” are written in response to texts I’m reading and grappling with, intellectually and emotionally. I encounter books and essays as constellations of ideas, and I attempt to distill these in my writing—often, by writing. I record and translate the work of reading feminist theory and poetics in my poetry, interspersing passages of primary texts with my private reflections on the material. In this, my writing is often dialogical. Poems take the form of short, amorphous dialogues with my readings and my struggle to come to terms with challenging feelings and ideas—feelings and ideas that pertain to feminine autonomy and institutional, structural oppression. “blank Plath,” “new blank,” and “for a video against the mythology of everyday life” took shape as response pieces in this way, and were triggered by a need to signal an empathy for the poetic voice, or the poetics of voice, in the original texts. “on not wanting to sink” and “optics make marks,” which open this suite, emerge from my reflection on how the speaking subject might assume agency within otherwise hopeless situations, particularly from within the structure of the gaze as framed in canonical representational theories, such as the psychoanalytic theories of Freud or Jacques Lacan and their followers, as they pertain to narrative and women’s bodies. This said, I don’t only write within a para-academic frame, but also as a mode of self-sustenance, as a femme woman navigating the world and attempting to reconcile my encounters with complexity in text and visuality.

Q: How do these pieces relate to other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: As I suggest above, these works are part of a larger poetic process adjacent to and intersecting with my academic work and thinking, as well as being a mode for sustaining the creative identity that I more or less actively suppress in my professional life (I originally trained as a studio artist, and have worked as a curator). Last year, I was invited to present my academic work at a concrete poetry conference alongside some of my poetry heroes (Renee Gladman, for instance! And Sarah Dowling! And Jordan Abel! The list goes on…), and I was prompted to begin to think about the possibility of working in visual poetics, instead of simply studying them as a scholar. So, this work is part of a larger project that I’m building in that I’m building towards a visual literary practice from a literary visual practice.

Q: What does that mean in terms of your overall perspective of what you’re attempting, moving from scholar to creator?

A: I understand myself primarily in terms of a doubled-identity that shifts between and/or layers these roles. My appreciation of specific poetics and aesthetics as an interpreter and critic borrows directly and indirectly from my own practical knowledge of making and doing; as a studio artist I used text, language, and collage in my installation work, and was fascinated by artists and writers who prioritized process in lieu of the finished piece. This orientation follows me in my research interests, where I gravitate to the practices of makers, theorists, and critics who think openly and visibly, their thoughts taking on the form of a double helix, often doubling back in a process of revision and/or repetition. The forms that fascinate me are often experimental, self-reflexive, and driven by conceit or constraint, though often not overtly. Intellectually-driven, but without being devoid of politics or heart. Sharp and soft. Affect is important. Coming back to my role as “creator,” I like to assert my agency as a participant, as an active reader in the work, but without erasing the original writer’s autonomy as author, although that’s a risk I recognize I take in using and borrowing from extant text. I think my relationship to text has changed as I’ve started teaching, too, particularly in my current position, as a visiting lecturer in American Studies in Mainz, Germany. Thinking about the intermixing of roles and their various intersections, teaching has taught me a certain concrete responsibility to the text, an ethics, an ethos that was previously atomized and intangible in my approach to writing and making. All of this a work in progress, a process.

Q: You’ve so far published a chapbook through above/ground press. Do you see your work forming into publishable shapes, whether chapbook or book-length forms? Are these even things you see yourself aiming towards, or are you simply allowing your projects to emerge as they will?

A: Publishing and sharing my work with a public is new to me, as I’ve always considered my praxis to be a private method of working through my thoughts, of recording. The thrilling-terrifying phenomenon of my work circulating is something I’m working through in both my creative and academic work; it’s funny to me that both circuits are being activated at the same time. But publishing is important; participation in the conversations, the emanations, that make up a community, whether literary and creative or academic is important, both to the individual voice and to the health of the collective.

The idea of an audience is something I’m coming to terms with. When the above/ground chapbook came out, I was surprised at how many people approached me to share their impressions, or simply show support. (My work was even reviewed in ARC Poetry Magazine by a poet I deeply admire, Nikki Sheppy.) I was similarly delighted by the response to my poem on the Dusie blog (a sort of homage to Eileen Myles). I’ve also been awakened to how poetry can fit in experimental, interdisciplinary artistic contexts, such as when I was invited to contribute to curator Lauren Fournier’s project, Fermenting Feminisms, with the Laboratory of Aesthetics and Ecology, published by Broken Dimanche Press. To address the question less obliquely, though, I do see my work shifting into publishable forms, and am painstakingly assembling a full-length manuscript, written largely in response to research related to my teaching and the slow accumulation of my dissertation.

Q: What was it that finally prodded your work into the public? Is there a difference in the way you see or approach your work now that you’ve been emerging into more public spaces?

A: Engaging with public spaces, for my writing and other creative pursuits, has generally been eased along by specific opportunities and invitations. Although I love performing and am certainly not one to shy away from public speaking (I also curate the Borderblur Reading series in St Catharines, for instance), sharing my creative work at this time in my career has felt quite different from the way it did when I was a young artist, naïve and unafraid of critical response. There is more at stake. In some ways, because I wrote and produced work at a formative age (which is when I uncovered my inclination to work in and with process), then withdrew to explore other dimensions of myself and create a version of stability, then returned to my praxis by means of my all-consuming academic work, I’m more immersed in the critical discussions that gird specific communities and forms. Which is useful in a plethora of ways, but such an awareness intensifies the experience of releasing work into the dense ether. Working with a doctoral supervisor, Gregory Betts, who works creatively and theorizes experimental production, has been extremely useful in helping me to feel comfortable both with the work I produce, and with its circulation. Although I’m fortunate to have several academic and artistic mentors, he was the first person whose attentive reading of my writing garnered a trust that my work might be publishable; he also introduced me to creative and scholarly networks that actively contribute to the shaping and development of my writing and thinking practice, as a means to participate in formal and political conversations. Such introductions have been key to building confidence and opening doors that are otherwise extremely challenging to negotiate from the outside. So, voice, agency, and also feeling welcome have been key in sharing my work.

Q: What kinds of works has he presented that have helped? And how, specifically, have they?

A: Although I had an extant interest in the influence of critical theory and art history on writing, Gregory introduced me to some of the histories, intersections, and controversies inherent to uncreative and conceptual writing strategies, as well as drawing out how a practical and critical interest in curation might be negotiated and applied to my writing practice. Importantly, he also helped me to find how these histories are reflected in Canadian and transnational North American writing communities, which has been tremendously influential in the development of my research. These ‘revelations’ also led to the evolution and expansion of the methods that underlie how my visual and writing practices interconnect, giving my written work a greater sense of personal significance and belonging, or community-orientation.

Gregory was also the first person to recommend that I look at Lisa Robertson’s work in my MA project about postmodernism and Vancouver’s geographies and creative economies, which has led me to continue working with her, both for my academic work and in my creative writing. Occasional Work and Seven Walks for the Office of Soft Architecture (2004) represents one of the first prose poetry works I encountered in a meaningful, sustained way, revealing to me how interdisciplinary creative and critical work can be combined, how language can be simultaneously evocative, agile, unremitting, and beautiful. And how feminist praxis can be all of these things.

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

A: In addition to the works I study academically (and admittedly, the gap between my academic and non-academic selves continues to narrow), I tend to return often to texts by feminist philosophers and theorists whose work speaks to me on an intimate level. I remember learning to find a path through dense works by reimagining them as therapeutic texts, designed to walk the reader through problems or phenomena and propose new ways of conceptualizing these problems or phenomena, rendering specific intellectual and/or emotional-affective challenges productive. Sara Ahmed and Rosi Braidotti come to mind most readily, as their writings bridge concerns of the mind and subjectivity with physical realities, or experiences of embodiment, and also weave together and challenge intellectual traditions and inheritances with contemporary queries about feminist survival. Or survivance; I’ve also recently been writing about feminist Indigenous media practices in Canada, and have found that Indigenous feminisms address related ideas from the perspective of land and body, often in relation to legacies of settler colonialism. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s essay “Land as pedagogy: Nishnaabeg intelligence and rebellious transformation” (2014) provided one of my first introductions to these ideas, and the work remains inspiring.

I was lucky to study one-on-one, in a directed reading course, with feminist existential philosopher Christine Daigle, and she and I put together a personalized (and rigorous!) syllabus with the aim of tracing the relationships between continental philosophy and avant-gardist poetics. The experience helped me to realize, by means of building a specific lexicon and testing ideas by writing, how my seemingly-eccentric way of simultaneously thinking through concepts and responding emotionally can be approached by means of theory, thought, and argumentation. And so reading philosophy can be tremendously energizing and affirming, especially in relation to poetics and self. Returning to poetry as a reading and thinking practice while actively contemplating such ideas helps generate writing that reflects particular moments in the development of a sense of agency and autonomy, and this feels important at this particular moment.

Monday, January 29, 2018

TtD supplement #94 : seven questions for Kyle Flemmer

Kyle Flemmer is an author, editor, and publisher from Calgary. He founded The Blasted Tree Publishing Company in 2014 (theblastedtree.com). Kyle’s most recent chapbooks are Astral Projection (above/ground press, 2017), Lunar Flag Assembly Kit (no press, 2017), and PRAY/LEWD (The Blasted Tree, 2016).

His poems “White Dwarfs,” “Yellow Dwarfs” and “Blue Giants” appear in the sixteenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “White Dwarfs,” “Yellow Dwarfs” and “Blue Giants.”

A: There is something about the nuclear processes at the heart of a star which I find fascinating – the outward push of an explosion set against the star’s own collapsing weight, these two unfathomably violent forces inextricable from the life of a star. Fission and fusion reactions can be reduced to the interaction of mere atoms, tiny particles colliding, combining, and dividing. There is a necessary and powerful interplay between the individual particles of any star, the characteristics of that star, and its ultimate fate. Some stars die very slowly while others burn bright and explode relatively early. Put simply, the contents of a star determine its manner of living and eventual death.

These poems draw parallels between various stellar classifications and some particular archetypes of human mortality. Like stars, human beings have distinct pressures that lead to different ways of living and dying, and we eulogize them in certain familiar patterns: the religious martyr, the war hero, the tragic suicide, the hanged convict, and so on. I’ve approached these patterns through the language of astrophysics (laced with allusion to various texts of historical import) in an attempt to bridge the gap between a scientific understanding of the physical universe and the fundamental causes of human life and culture.

Written first, “White Dwarfs” most clearly situates humanity within the rise and fall of the cosmos. The manner of living and dying it speaks to is cultural canonization (especially that of white, Western thinkers to the exclusion of everyone else) by tackling thinkers with a tendency to universalize, like Hegel and Kant. “Yellow Dwarfs” speaks to religious violence and martyrdom, suggesting that the ‘cosmic oneness’ espoused by many religious institutions is undermined by the inherent divisiveness of their language. Lastly, “Blue Giants” is about a very particular type of suicide; the seemingly unavoidable suicide of young, successful figures like Curt Cobain, Sylvia Plath, or Dido, Queen of Carthage. These stars burn fast and bright, explode furiously, and scatter traces of themselves across time and space.

Q: How do these pieces fit in with the rest of the work you’ve been doing lately?

A: When I close my eyes and imagine the coolest book I can think of, I picture a comprehensive astronomy textbook written in poetry. I’m interested in how our understanding of the cosmos shapes the way we understand ourselves. We know more than ever about the universe, and we’ve begun to reach out and touch the heavens we have only observed until now. Poetry is closely associated with the expression of cosmic understanding, and when there is a paradigm shift in that understanding, we must also see a shift in how poetry communicates that new knowledge. To my mind, these discourses belong together. I fear there is a gap widening between our scientific and poetic understandings of the universe (and our place within it), and my work in this vein endeavors to address and close the gap.

The above project is more a prime directive I’m chipping away at in the background all the time than it is a discrete objective, so I try not to force it, and a lot of my day-to-day practice lately has involved visual poetry, or some other form of writing I can generate more spontaneously. This takes some of the internal pressure off the long-term project, and I can enjoy both approaches more fully.

Q: How big is this project? Is this something you see as book-length, potentially?

A: It’s hard to say precisely how large a project on space exploration should be – perhaps it is unbounded. I think of it as a pursuit that encompasses multiple sub-projects which will grow alongside the development of our space programs. Events like the Cassini spacecraft’s intricate flight around and death spiral into Saturn are happening with some frequency these days, and each of these encounters with the unknown is a human accomplishments worth enshrining in our discourse.

I’ve already published two chapbooks along these lines, the first being Lunar Flag Assembly Kit (The Blasted Tree, 2016; reissued by No Press, 2017), which uses statements of fact like building blocks to unfold the story of each American flag deployed during the Apollo program. Then I wrote Astral Projection (above/ground Press, 2017), a series of fragmented poems about specific asteroids and their classification, simulating the process astronomers undertake when studying the history of and relationships between these projectiles. So yes, there is potential for book-length works within the scope of the project. What’s most important for me at that stage is be the proper arrangement of sub-projects into cohesive volumes; I’m not totally convinced that the above two chapbooks belong in the same book as each other, nor with poems from the star suite appearing in Touch the Donkey. There is so much rich material in each sub-topic of astronomy (and our ever-changing relationship to this information) that I could ever exhaust their potential.

Q: This suggests you’re not even thinking about a book yet, but in simply letting the project expand organically, allowing potential chapbook-sized and/or book-sized manuscripts to evolve as they will. What kind of models, if any, have you had for this project?

A: How could I not be thinking of books!? I do every day. The problem is one of sufficient development. I don’t see many of the trajectories I’ve established for myself, trajectories that might neatly be encapsulated into books, as properly fulfilled yet. But the wheels are turning. I would peg myself halfway between a programmatic and an organic writer, meaning I have laid down the bones of books, but they shall take some time to flesh out satisfactorily.

As models, I have taken poets such as Sina Queyras and Christian Bök, both of whom employ conceptualist or process-oriented techniques to explore specific ideas or lines of inquiry. Bök’s Xenotext has been particularly influential on my thinking, so far as the need to predetermine experimental goals and write toward them. Queyras taught me that several well-developed lines of inquiry must intersect in and amplify through a lyric body, which is a good approximation of what a poet is doing as they write a book. Ken Hunt has two forthcoming poetry collections about space exploration that look really exciting, and I can’t help but follow his lead. Actually, our poetry was quite similar even before we met, and I’ve thought about how I should distinguish my projects from his in the future. Otherwise, I try to emulate poets who take on technical or otherwise specialized language, using these restrictions to articulate some wider human understanding; Helen Hajnoczky’s Poets and Killers: A Life in Advertising, Larissa Lai’s Automaton Biographies, and Josef Kaplan’s Democracy is not for the People leap to mind.

Q: What is it about the restriction that appeals? What does it allow you to articulate that you might not have been able to otherwise?

A: Writing of any kind involves choices on behalf of the author: what to write about, in what style, how the ideas should be arranged, what effect one hopes to achieve, etc. Restrictions are nothing more than clearly articulated decisions made about the writing beforehand. The main reason I establish a few significant constraints is so they can act as my roadmap and program. Consciously adopted restrictions are controllable variables – helpful during both the writing and editing processes. A blank page offers very little toward making your decisions, but a well-devised set of constraints tells you where the poem begins and when it is fulfilled. Instead of closing off potential, they define what is possible within the space of the poem you have choosen to inhabit. Practically speaking, if the big decisions are already made (about form, for example), then I feel free to focus on minutia, or even better, to lose focus and allow associative leaps, imaginative detritus, and spontaneous inspiration to fill out the structures already in place.

Q: How did you first become engaged in merging your interests in science and poetry? How does such an expansive project begin?

A: It’s difficult to pinpoint where my interests in the overlap between science and poetry began, but the earliest memory I have of this link is of learning a mnemonic device in elementary school for remembering the order of the planets. We were taught that science, literature, art, math, and so on were discrete subjects, but I remember thinking this sing-song mnemonic from Science class was essentially like the poetry we read in English. And yet, by the time high school rolled around, the distinction between science and literature had been firmly entrenched in my mind. In fact, I had an English teacher who actively discouraged challenging the boarders between subjects (I wrote her prose poems about the solar system she flatly denied were poetry), and this left in me a sort of mental sliver I’ve been trying to work out ever since. Why the stubborn resistance to mixing traditionally separate subject matters? Why the forced distinction between left- and right-brained people?

Of course, I’m nowhere near the first to raise concerns with the false dichotomy between art and science, but it took repeated exposure to critiques of the split before I was able to articulate the problem for myself. On the Nature of Things by Lucretius was the first sustained meditation on scientific understanding I encountered couched in verse. His method of encoding difficult ideas in an easily digestible form left a deep impression on me. I began to think more seriously about how a similar project could be undertaken in the present. Once sensitized to this idea, other authors lent validation to my thinking: Levi-Strauss and the notion of anthropological bricolage; Bök’s fusion of minerology and poetry in Crystallography; a whole host of science fiction authors making bold satirical statements about our world. Then, finally, Heidegger’s equation of the Greek terms “techne” and “poiesis,” offered as congruent methods for revealing truth, transformed my preoccupation with this project into an imperative.

As to undertaking such a scheme, I have chosen to start close to home. My earliest poetic experiments in this area were concerned with the moon, our closest neighbor, and with the cultural and political significance of the lunar landings. I’m particularly interested in how our relationship to these most impressive feats of human engineering have changed over time. That interest has spread rapidly to other unsung feats of space exploration; the extraordinary success of the four Martian rovers, Voyager’s entry into deep space, the modular evolution of the International Space Station, and so on. “White Dwarfs” and the other stellar poems in Touch the Donkey are my first attempt to move outside the solar system, addressing our place within the universe as a whole.

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

A: Plato. I always come back to Plato. Honestly, to reenergize my creative practice I feel I need to get as far away from poetry as possible. So I read political history, critical theory, philosophy, mathematics, and so forth, subjects which demand the same mental rigor as poetry, but without foregrounding their aesthetic dimensions. Excursion into this stuff not only enriches my own work with new material, it helps train my brain to keep up with the brilliant, boundary-pushers working in contemporary poetry, very few of whom pull their punches when it comes to deep thinking. Which is where Plato enters my picture; his dialogues don’t present a cohesive philosophical system, and I don’t think they’re meant to. Rather, he leads us through a series of complicated (and often inconsistent) mental gymnastics. The problem when confronting Plato is not merely to grasp his version of truth, but to follow each maneuver and variation in his conversational approach through to its logical conclusion, to think your way around the corners he leaves you at. Essentially, reading Plato teaches you to spot the lie. Practicing this skill may not explicitly help your poetry, but I’m of the mind that a tradesperson must keep their tools sharp, and the nonfiction shelves are where I turn when I feel my practice getting blunt.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Touch the Donkey : sixteenth issue,

The sixteenth issue is now available, with new poems by Sue Landers, Kyle Flemmer, Donato Mancini, Anthony Etherin, Catriona Strang, A.M. O’Malley, Claire Lacey, Sacha Archer and Julia Polyck-O’Neill.

Seven dollars (includes shipping). If you ask me they're all winners.

Friday, January 5, 2018

TtD supplement #93 : six questions for Christine Stewart

Christine Stewart works in the English and Film Studies Department at the University of Alberta on Treaty 6 territory. She teaches and studies the transformative potential of poetics in the creative writing programme. She is a founding member of the Writing Revolution in Place Creative Research Collective. Recent publications: “Propositions from Under Mill Creek Bridge,” in Sustaining the West. Wilfred Laurier, “On Treaty Six from Under Mill Creek Bridge” in Toward. Some. Air. Banff Centre Press, “This—from Treaty Six” in Dusie and The Odes, Nomados Press (shortlisted for the bpNichol Chapbook award 2016). A new poetic study of Treaty 6 is forthcoming in Talon Books in 2018, and “Notes from the Underbridge” a collaboration with composer Jacquie Leggatt is also forthcoming in 2018.

Her poem “The UnderBridge Project Upriver (Winter 2011-2012)” appears in the fifteenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: How did the poem “The UnderBridge Project Upriver (Winter 2011-2012)” come about?

A: The poem “The Underbridge Project Upriver” is a small piece of a much larger project and the answer to the question of how the larger underbridge project began is embedded. It is embedded in fear and it began under a bridge. It is embedded in 2007 and it began in loneliness. It is embedded in colonial time, and it began in Edmonton, in a ravine, by a raven, near a rising. It is embedded in crime. It begins with returning. It is embedded in creek. It began in failure, in stone, in river, in treaty.

It began with this grip, with this love, with these lists.  It is embedded in this colonial violence, in this throat, in this grief. It began with this gratitude. It is embedded in these ears. It began with this visit. It is embedded in this obliteration, this obligation. It began with this cat. It is embedded in this cart. It is embedded in this earth. It began with this refusal.

It began with Sharon Venne, with 1876, with the nêhiyawk, the Iyarhe Nakoda, the Métis, the Dene, the Niagara Treaty, with 1763, with coyotes, with all this bullshit, with all these good intentions, with Marilyn’s grey boots and her dancing.

It began with this weather, with Saidiya Hartman’s “Terrible Beauty,” with our collective, with our friendship, with our fragility, with all that distance, and fissure, and capitalism, and white settler supremacy.

It began with this project, with my failure, and our flailing.

It is embedded in this necropolis, this meeting place, in that dream, in this generosity, in that colossal nightmare, in that hilarious, devastating discussion, in this great fuck-up, in these suspect coalitions, in those visits, in your poetry, in that terrible mistake, in those mornings with quiche.

It is embedded in owing, in owl, in law, in labour, in breath, in wound, in debt, in violence, in failure, in refusals, in love, in plastic, in sweat, in Fred, in loose, in line break, in archive, in ache, in shit, in greet, in grief, in gratitude, in spirit, in berry, in hand, in heard, in hook, in listen, in time, in quiet, in staying, in leaving, in attending.

Q: I’m fascinated by how such an all-encompassing project began upon your arrival in Edmonton from Vancouver. What was it about this project that took over so completely, and how does it relate, if at all, to your previous work?

A: I think the underbridge project only relates to my previous work in that I am always working through and with the English language in order to encounter and consider something difficult.

And I think the comprehensive quality of the work is precisely because the difficulty I am working with (through and into) is totalizing.

To be here on colonized land, to be here with a white settler history, in a body that is both colonized and colonizing, consumed and consuming, this enfolds me.

It is an enfolding condition that is impossible and untenable because it is so possible, so normalized, so profitable.

I write and work to find something else, to see what other possibilities for life a poetic practice might (or might not) reveal.

And often I don’t write. Not writing is necessary. To be against writing is often necessary.

When I am mostly not writing I am trying to listen, to locate, to furnish other possibilities for life, for thinking, for warmth, for collective breathing.

That is, I am working, talking with others, trying to create spaces, other ways of meeting, other ways of being, in treaty, in anomalous collections, in unexpected connections and conditions, and sometimes, on a good day, there are moments of solidarity and resistance, sometimes there is time, and even air.  But sometimes there isn’t.

Fred Moten writes, “I believe in the world and want to be in it. I want to be in it all the way to the end of it because I believe in another world and I want to be in that.” 

It’s like that, wanting an end to this so that something else can emerge; and the writing, and the refusal to write—for me these gestures and their refusals are connected to the writing, and to the underbridge.

Q: How has such a project evolved? You mention Moten, but have you any specific models for the shape this project is taking?

A: I have no specific models, and the form of the work shifts constantly.

It depends on who I am working with at the time. It depends on where I am working at the time. I guess the underbridge is a kind of extended place study, and it is influenced by the communities I find, am engaged with, am responsible to. The students I work with, who teach me, who make me laugh. My beloved friends and colleagues in WRIP, at the university and in the city. My beautiful neighbours—the beavers just up river, the coyotes just down river, the grey trees, and those owls. So many owls around this month. Plus the ravine and then this river that, for me, is at the centre of everything. These communities keep me here; they challenge me, feed me; they shift me; they change and inform the project.

Q: How important is research to your writing?

A: The underbridge is a study, and I think that all my writing is research in a sense, always a kind of study, an attempt to sort out/through some difficulty or another. I suppose that I am always thinking what language might do in this case or in that case, right here and now, next to that; can it be coaxed, curated, refused (re-fused too, I suppose) in some way so that it might offer up something else? Can it let in air and maybe warmth and light? & also darkness and the cold and maybe a few termites.

Q: I’m fascinated by that, the idea that all of your writing is research. How did this emerge? How did you get to this place?

A: Writing as research, writing as a way of thinking, a way of reading through and into the world.
I think for writers that I read when I was younger like Susan Howe and Lyn Hejinian this has always been important. For Howe, writing was/is a particular way of encountering history, conducting historical research. For Hejinian writing is a practice of inquiry. & both writers are interested in what it means to be a female writing subject—a white writing female in their case. Though this distinction is not necessarily foregrounded in their work—though this is something that Hejinian importantly takes up in “En Face” (March 10, 2015 http://bostonreview.net/poetry/lyn-hejinian-en-face).

The idea that writing is a way of thinking through difficulties is not unique. I remember Hejinian saying that as writers, we work through the same problem our whole lives. I am not sure that is precisely true for me. But it is possibly generally true in that I look to words and what they might do to sort through things that are unbearable. These days I am constantly asking the question that is also an extension of the underbridge project: what would it be for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to work together so that we might arrive at a way of being together in this place. This question is simultaneously animated and troubled by the work I have done in the last year with nêhiyaw (Cree) instructor, Reuben Quinn. I work with Reuben in a class that so far we have called “The Poetics of Treaty Six.”

In this class, we are working to find a shared language, a way to talk about treaty, to honour treaty and treaty sensibility. Reuben teaches this sensibility through the nehiyaw (Cree) spirit markers (or syllabics). You can see Reuben’s spirit marker teachings here in a video made by the Amiskwaciy History Series in Edmonton: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CpvuED_hJTM

In Reuben’s teachings, we learn the spirit markers and we learn how treaty sensibility is actually embedded in the nêhiyaw language itself; that is, that the spirit markers hold essential nêhiyaw laws based in familial obligation, reciprocity and love.  This is a beautiful and powerful teaching that radically reframes the world and the ways in which we are connected to the world. & Reuben’s pedagogical approach and his presence in the class shift us away from a conventional university experience. But we also learn how our treaty, Treaty 6, was not honoured by the Crown, and how Reuben, as an ancestor of Papasteyo, the leader of the Papaschase people, was displaced from the land here, placed in residential schools as a child, and exposed to the relentless genocidal systems of the Canadian government and Canadian society.  We learn that the University of Alberta sits on Papaschase land, stolen Papaschase land. The class opens up wounds and facts about the world that we continue to live in and from which some of us profit enormously and so the class costs Reuben in ways that most white people cannot even begin imagine. & this class teaches me a lot. For one, I learn that any feel good place I might ever arrive at is a delusion. That is, colonialism is still alive and well and wrecking havoc, and I am part of its havoc—in some very real ways, regardless of my intentions. On some basic level, anything I do is fraught with its own violence. Yet, despite this, I still try to create points of connection, because I don’t know what else to do, because I can’t do anything else. And so currently, one of the difficulties that I work with as I am writing is how to write with English, in its violence and possibilities. The book that I have been working on most recently, Treaty Six Deixis, is also an extension of the underbridge project and it looks towards Stein, in a particular way, to consider what a deictic focus in English might do in regards to making a reader look to and attend that place where they are, reading. Although Treaty Six Deixis focuses on this land in Edmonton, the river valley, it asks the reader to consider where they are, right now. The book is part of my struggle to acknowledge and to attend to this place with historical accuracy and honesty; that is, with a sense of obligation and implication. It is not much and it is uncomfortable. To be white here where I am is to participate in white supremacy and there is no way to language myself out of that fact, but maybe through writing I can think usefully around that place towards something else, something otherwise. I don’t know. In this way, writing is always researching. Writing is always writing me, always asking me, what else is possible here? But also, in my writing, I understand that writing is never enough.

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

A: What do I read? I used to read Hejjnian, Howe, Stein, Oppen, Neidecker, Judith Butler, Agamben, Spinoza, Vico. But then under the bridge, I needed to read Edmonton and its history. So, I started reading the underbridge—the graffiti on the cement pylons, bridge maintenance reports and the one history book I could find in 2008 that wasn’t overtly racist, Edmonton in Our Own Words. That book was a beginning and put me in touch with Papaschase scholar Dwayne Donald. With his help and generosity and with the equally generous guidance of Elder Bob Cardinal from Enoch First Nation, I began to understand this place in very different ways. But that understanding actually has little do with reading. It requires other things of me, different and difficult and (often) beautiful forms of discipline and labour—like listening, like quietness, like gratitude, like lighting a fire in the woodstove in the teaching lodge at-25 below without ever once blowing on the flames. When I started working downtown in Edmonton with the amazing creative research collective WRIP (Writing Revolution in Place), we read Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Rancière’s The Ignorant School Master. & this was raucous reading. When Lisa Robertson’s Nilling came out, I carried it around in my bag and read it again and again until it was grey and worn with furling. Then I read John Borrows’ Drawing Out Law and Kim Anderson’s work on being old lady raised (“Notokwe Opikiheet—“Old-lady Raised.”” Canadian Woman Studies) and Sylvia McAdam’s account of the role of the women law makers in nêhiyaw society at the time of treaty making in Nationhood Interrupted. Since working with Reuben Quinn, I read and practice the spirit marker chart and I read my nêhiyaw exercise books from Dorothy Thunder’s class. Also, always reading and rereading with my students and myself, Anne Boyer’s Garments for Women, Sarah Ahmed. Leanne Simpson, Mercedi Eng and Fred Moten, particularly his work with Stefano Harney, The Undercommons. These writers, these texts feed me, floor me. Now I am in Vancouver on a one-term sabbatical, and I don’t actually know that much about this pace where I lived for 35 years before I moved to Edmonton. So, now I guess my work is to look after my grandkids, try to finish up the underbridge project, which will never be finished and try, while I am here, to attend to this land, where I will be until the end of next summer. Where am when I am here? & what does it mean to be in this place? & these are all underbridge questions. & they will require reading and writing, but also maybe mostly listening.