Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Mathias Svalina, The Wine-Dark Sea


Memory draws back
dialing lips.
These unreal

reasons to write,
to say, straight true.

It is already a month
since I left
the hospital.

Like everything in letters
there is a little
& a ligature.

The seventy-six poems that make up Denver, Colorado poet and editor Mathias Svalina’s fifth poetry collection, The Wine-Dark Sea (Portland OR: Sidebrow Books, 2016), are each no longer than a page, and hold the same title as the collection (which makes the table of contents, listing every one of the seventy-six same-titled poems and their corresponding pages absurdly entertaining). The poems in The Wine-Dark Sea explore a rather dense and occasionally dark, surreal and abstract lyric, one that is reminiscent at times of the work of Paris, Ontario poet Nelson Ball (or certain poems by Stuart Ross), for their density and meditative tone. There is almost a zen quality in some of these pieces, as he writes: “Each day emerges / in apprise. // No one / can be / companion— // the grass // purely / containment.” There is something fantastic in the way Svalina composes so many poems under the same title. One could argue it would be relatively easy to compose one poem under such a title, or even a couple, but seventy-six poems with similar tone and structure without lapsing into repetition or mediocrity is simply stellar. It makes me curious to know if he composed more than he required and cut down, or simply worked like hell on every single piece, carving and cobbling lyric fragments together into these smart, well-crafted and incredibly powerful poems. The Wine-Dark Sea is sharp as hell, and a marvellous achievement.


Wet bodies
in the sun.

I need new songs
to bite this lip off

to find the more
fragile lip.

I can only

the song always on

the radio,
the radio

always on.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Queen Mob's Teahouse : Jaimie Gusman interviews Timothy Dyke

As my tenure as interviews editor at Queen Mob's Teahouse continues, the twenty-fourth interview is now online: Jaimie Gusman interviews Timothy Dyke (turning the tables on their prior interview). Other interviews from my tenure include: an interview with poet, curator and art critic Gil McElroy, conducted by Ottawa poet Roland Prevostan interview with Toronto poet Jacqueline Valencia, conducted by Lyndsay Kirkhaman interview with Drew Shannon and Nathan Page, also conducted by Lyndsay Kirkhaman interview with Ann Tweedy conducted by Mary Kasimoran interview with Katherine Osborne, conducted by Niina Pollarian interview with Catch Business, conducted by Jon-Michael Franka conversation between Vanesa Pacheco and T.A. Noonan, "On Translation and Erasure," existing as an extension of Jessica Smith's The Women in Visual Poetry: The Bechdel Test, produced via Essay PressFive questions for Sara Uribe and John Pluecker about Antígona González by David Buuck (translated by John Pluecker),"overflow: poetry, performance, technology, ancestry": kaie kellough in correspondence with Eric Schmaltz, and Mary Kasimor's interview with George FarrahBrad Casey interviewed byEmilie LafleurDavid Buuck interviews John Chávez about Angels of the Americlypse: An Anthology of New Latin@ Writing and an interview with Abraham Adams by Ben FamaTender and Tough: Letters as Questions as Letters: Cheena Marie Lo, Tessa Micaela and Brittany Billmeyer-Finn, Kristjana Gunnars’ interview with Thistledown Press author Anne Campbell, Timothy Dyke’s interview with Hawai’i poet Jaimie Gusman, Hailey Higdon's interview with Joanne Kyger.and Stephanie Kaylor's interview with Kenyatta JP Garcia.

Further interviews I've conducted myself over at Queen Mob's Teahouse includeGeoffrey YoungClaire Freeman-Fawcett on Spread LetterStephanie Bolster on Three Bloody WordsClaire Farley on CanthiusDale Smith on Slow Poetry in AmericaAllison GreenMeredith QuartermainAndy WeaverN.W Lea and Rachel Loden.

If you are interested in sending a pitch for an interview my way, check out my "about submissions" write-up at Queen Mob's; you can contact me via rob_mclennan (at)

Monday, March 27, 2017

Aisha Sasha John, I have to live.

I had a vision now.
It wasn’t a vision.
A man in a striped shirt stood in a line.
His hair looked like yours
So I thought of you.
Fuck I prolyl should’ve messaged you back
After I asked for and you sent me that photo
Of your baby. (“Today I could aspire but I want to nap”)

Toronto poet, choreographer and performer Aisha Sasha John’s third poetry collection is the absolutely thrilling I have to live. (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 2017), a book-length suite of lyric poems running lengthwise across the entire stretch of being, exploring the physical, the sexual and the spiritual. Composed as a poetic diary, I have to live. is an incredibly sensual and deeply personal book, and sketches out across titles such as “Something softens me,” “I sleep in a room.” and “When I leave here I don’t know where I am.” to “What’s the big fucking deal about,” “The landlord said he lost his phone.” and “How much of your body is in your head.” There is something memoir-ish, even “confessional” in her first-person poems, carved as a combination between lyric essay, storytelling and myth. “I am low and found; I am high and found.” she writes at one point. In another part of the collection, she adds: “If I’m wrong / If I’m wrong – who gives a fuck? // I have to live.”

Oh I feel great.
And jealous.
Ya I feel grealous.
I have ten minutes.
Today I want clarity.
I understand the next book cover
To be my tiny little ear so
If you want more instruction, note:
I already told you
To lie on the ground or
Sit on it.
It can’t be
Saturday morning
All the time. (“Happy Cup”)

The poems in this collection revel in the phrase and fragment, held together as a single, extended book-length declaration of story, personality and theatre; a declaration of standing firm, resisting when required, and being attentive to whatever might come. This is an open-hearted, no bullshit collection of hefty, articulate, funny and sensual poems. One of the more striking poems in the collection, originally published in The Capilano Review, is the sequence “In August I visited my Gran.” that includes:

On the television
A woman carves from a stack of rice krispie squares
Human breasts.

I feed cut watermelon to my grandmother.

I am low and found; I am high and found.
When I read that part to my mom over the phone she
Cries. It’s sad
She says.

I put my ticket there on her Visa.

The next day my cousin sends me a message.
I read the message.
Then what I do is call my mother.
Now you don’t have any more grandparents!

Sunday, March 26, 2017

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Molly Bendall

Molly Bendall is the author five collections of poetry, After Estrangement, Dark Summer, Ariadne’s Island, Under the Quick, and most recently Watchful from Omnidawn press. She also has a co-authored with the poet Gail Wronsky Bling & Fringe from What Books.  Her poems and translations have also appeared in the anthologies: American Hybrid, Poems for the Millenium, and Satellite Convulsions: Poems from Tin House.

She has won the Eunice Tietjens Prize from Poetry magazine, the Lynda Hull award from
Denver Quarterly and two Pushcart Prizes.  She currently she teaches at the University of Southern California.  

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
It was definitely affirming for me when my first book came out. I felt I had arrived in the literary world even in a small way. I love the book as object, the materiality and feel of it. I got to choose the cover which I really appreciated, and I’ve been able to choose all my book covers since, and this has been important for me and the sense I have of the book. Also, the idea of other people holding the object and putting it on their shelves is a wonderful way of being in the world. I still feel that way with each book, and each new collection makes me want to keep going further with my work.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I was lucky that I had a mother who read poetry to me at a very young age.  Of course,
it was poetry written for children—the greats, such as Eugene Field, Robert Louis Stevenson,
Christina Rossetti, Walter de la Mare.  I became aware of language having rhythms and cadences by hearing these poems.  Also, since I was so young, the language was mysterious and often inscrutable to me, and that sense of it stayed with me.   I was also a dancer when I was young, and the structures and movements of dance are more like the expressions of poetry than prose I think.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I usually take at least a year when I begin a new project. A year of jotting things down and writing many poems that usually fail. I find that this is necessary for me to get at the voice, rhythms, and diction I want. Also, it takes a while for me to have a focus or theme that I become nearly obsessed with.

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Sometimes I work on a small group of poems thinking it will become a sequence, and then sometimes a single poem I’m writing is related thematically to other pieces I’ve worked on. And as I mentioned, I usually will have a kind of focus that includes voice, rhythms, a lexicon, with some variations, and I try to keep writing poems with these in mind, which after a long while becomes a book.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I find readings are quite helpful to me in understanding how my work is coming across. I like
presenting the poems through my voice and expressing the words and lines. And I think it’s interesting to hear others read their work also. I often play audio recordings of poets when I teach. I like the reactions from students as they hear the rhythms and intonations of a particular poet.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
My recent book concerned itself with human and animal relations.  The poems also explored an elegiac stance. In a larger sense, I would say I’m interested in the expressiveness of language and how it can subvert logic and representation but still have emotional or spiritual resonance. 

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Writers (and all artists really) help put us in touch with the limitlessness of our inner lives as well as the reaches of our outer and social lives. Their responsibility is to the work itself, which expresses and illuminates our world, including the shameful and negative aspects. And poetry reminds us how rich and complicated language is and how fortunate it is that we have this way of expressing ourselves. I guess I would also say we, as poets, have a responsibility to explore and to show language’s possibilities and not just opt for the ordinary and easy. 

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I found it was really valuable working with both Rusty Morrison at Omnidawn and Jon Thompson at Parlor Press.  They were close readers of my work and saw things in it that I didn’t always see.  I am so grateful for their generosity.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
One of my teachers, the poet Charles Wright, said “You have to become obsessed with something and keep working on it.” That seems obvious to me now. I just had to listen to what my obsessions were.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (your own poetry to translation)? What do you see as the appeal?
I recently wrote a long critical essay on the poetry of Christine Hume. I found that I had to stay in that analytical head space for quite a while. I enjoyed this hard work, and it taught me a lot about critical reading and writing, but I was glad to get back into the head space of writing poems. And then I regularly write shorter reviews of books which is fun, and I think it’s important to recognize books that I admire and that I feel are exploring something in a new way.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I work early in the morning usually, but I like to take a note or two anytime of day or night.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Often, I turn to other books, sometimes poetry, sometimes fiction in order to soak up some wonderful language. I also go and look at things: landscapes, like the ocean nearby, art, animals, fashion, street life. I do like to absorb the world. I write final drafts and editing in a quiet space, but when I jot down notes I like to be around things, the colors and movements of the world.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Sheets hanging on a clothesline, newly raked leaves

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Again, lots of things can inspire and influence my work.  I love to go to museums, not only art museums but historical museums where there are many artifacts to ponder. And with my last book Watchful, the zoo was an important place for me to go.  It was a place that was intriguing and troubling at once.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?  

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d love to go on an archaeological dig anywhere in the world.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I probably would have continued being a dancer for a little while longer, although that career is fairly short.  Then I would have maybe been an historian, digging through archives.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I’ve always loved books and wanted to make one of my own, and I was drawn to the solitary activity of writing.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m reading about women who found themselves under regimes and struggled against them in various ways.  I learned and read about Elizabeth Van Lew who lived in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia, and she risked her life spying for the Union during the Civil War. Also, I’m reading the amazing writings of Herta Muller who lived through the Ceausescu regime in Romania. 

I’m thinking about these women and the psychological space of these kinds of struggles as I’m
writing some new poems.