Sunday, March 09, 2014
Saturday, March 08, 2014
Quanta of light move in waves over the sea, move the sea to the horizon.
Purple is a horizon extending the sky.
It seems not an earth-sky.
To think of attention as moving without trying to be moved to shadow, hepatica, sea, to purple or sky.
Rain falls on the sea and forms a night field of circles glittering idly in moonlight then dissolves into sea surface.
To give attention to what does not exist.
Here, there. (“Wind”)
Toronto poet and American expatriate Julie Joosten’s first trade poetry collection is Light Light (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2013), a collection of dense lyrics blended with the attention of essays. Joosten writes on spaces lost, forgotten and otherwise misplaced, or even deliberately obscured. “[S]ecrecy another form / of resistance,” she writes, in the poem “If light stabilizing / If to receive a bee.” The sixteen extended lyrics that make up Light Light sketch out a series of meditative studies on and around small moments, as she writes to open the poem “Ghost Species”: “Henry David Thoreau would describe the seasons, listing // the flowering times of wildflowers around Concord Massachusetts / (1851-1858). // It continues today: the data, the occasional field, the wildflowers, / declining.” The poems in Light Light are small studies in horticulture, sketches of ecologies and exploration of botany, and how any gaze changes both watcher and precisely what is being seen and studied. To describe her poems as “eco-poetry” would do the book a disservice, through reducing a more complex set of structures, ideas and perspectives to something far less. And yet, quite simply, her poems speak to a perspective that becomes irrevocably lost, once we lose sight of what is just outside our window, and the relationships we have with nature. By describing and discussing the world and natural histories, she becomes one of the natural world’s strongest advocates.
It began a field, grew valley. Light tipped grass scatters from pollen. Tree atoms gather in splints, divide to aster and cress.
Become a room of weather.
The sun coppers the ground. Its angles bring several seasons at once.
The accident of petals quarrying a winter field.
In a valley of wild hive, orange blossom, and honey the sun is silent. Is carried on the backs of horses.
Ferried against the wind.
By sympathy or suggestion I remember what I am. Walking beside a river humming with the dark. (“Once Sun”)
She certainly isn’t the first to work through ecological concerns and/or natural histories in poetry, and some recent examples of works that share Joosten’s ecological attentiveness, striking language and the book-length unit of composition include Robin Clarke’s Lines the Quarry (Richmond CA: Omnidawn, 2013), Brian Teare’s Companion Grasses (Omnidawn, 2013), Ken Belford’s Internodes (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2013) and Larissa Lai and Rita Wong’s collaborative re-issue Sybil Unrest (Vancouver BC: New Star Books, 2013). There have been poetic conversations going back decades about the pastoral, with more recent strains of eco-poetry and other ecological concerns added to the mix, which can’t help but fall deeper into the writing with every passing day. Light Light is a striking, subtle collection of sharp lyric movements that ebb and flow like water, alternately rushing, punching and as soothing as same. Not just light, but lighter, light or lighter than.
The green of the field felt so unforgettable winter could never again exist.
I’d have said in the absence of colour there thought was. The hills bringing the mind not to itself but to the idea of green. To the feeling of sunlight as expectation. The future opened from a circle of snow.
Stone, maple, daffodil, tadpole, skein.
When the valley came to be a valley I was watching winter grasses brown against the sky then green then suddenly in a startling smallness bud to pink. But it wasn’t as peaceful as that. Mud thickened the ground, made it grabby.
It gripped a finch, spit up feathers to write with, took an oak, four kittens, a thunderstorm, and a pair of woolen gloves. Grabbed a man and a woman whole, left imprints like swollen snow angels.
In a place of winter a field emerged, carving beauty’s furrows, entrenching muck-spattered beauty into the valley.
I was to guard the valley, name it, speak to it by name. (“Once Sun”)
Friday, March 07, 2014
Mercedes Eng is a writer and teacher in Vancouver, Coast Salish territory. Her first book, Mercenary English (CUE Books, 2013) “combines tart insights into gender and racial relations, and a playfulness of language not always found in political poetry.” Her writing has appeared in various critical and literary journals, on the sides of Burrard and Granville bridges as contributions to public art projects, and in the collective-produced movement-based chapbooks, r/ally (No One Is Illegal), Survalliance and M’aidez (Press Release).
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 published less than a year ago so it’s hard to say; sometimes I still can’t believe I published a book.
Recent work is similar regarding starting place and poetic tactics but now I produce tighter work more quickly.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
As a poetic form, (some) rap music exposes, critiques, and resists oppression in lyrically innovative short narratives all while making a body want to move; I wanted to try that.
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?
The first book took the longest, both to start and to finish. Initially writing was a slow process, then I began to write longish documentary poems. The process of working with found text—finding it, ingesting it, transcribing it—generates material quickly but it takes time to distill the language and organize it into a structurally cohesive poetic weapon. Working with found text right from the beginning of my current project, Prison Industrial Complex Explodes, I find I “write” less and less. Sometimes I think I don’t need to write anything anymore because what’s circulating in the infosphere only needs to be curated.
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?
Originally I wrote short pieces, now I think in terms of book-length poem.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Definitely part of. I often intend to practice my work aloud and don’t, so readings force editing because you’ve heard the words aloud not in your head and they don’t sound right and you’re embarrassed because you didn’t have your shit together. Also, I’ve felt encouraged by audience responses, which motivates the creative process, especially when you feel like you killed it and left the room empty of breath.
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?
Material concerns definitely. My current project uses a government questionnaire on the implementation of the Multicultural Act in the Canadian federal prison system. My answers are three streams of information: the privatization of the prison and refugee detention systems in Canada and the US; the criminalizing of dissent and the corresponding rise of indigenous activists in prison populations where indigenous peoples are already disproportionately represented; and the criminalizing of poverty and the corresponding rise of incarceration rates of refugees, many of whom are people of colour.
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?
Currently, for myself, see previous question.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Essential. Mercenary English wouldn’t be what it is without the editorial prowess of Roger Farr and I’m a better writer for the experience.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Remember to breathe.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
Sometimes I think I write poetry because I’m a lazy prose writer, so I don’t find moving between genres easy. Instead I create (or more accurately, borrow) hybrid forms that bridge them. When I write creative text (which often starts with distilling found text such as mainstream news and government reports) I think in terms of argument or thesis. “knuckle sandwich” was taught in a university class not as poetry but as critical writing alongside Spivak and Fanon. That was cool.
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?
When I’m coordinated, and depending on my paid-work schedule, weekdays begin with reading/writing for 1-2 hours.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
It’s not so much getting stalled as needing time away from writing as part of the process of writing. If I’m not getting anywhere with what I’m working on, I research another aspect of that project, or I work on another project, or I don’t look at any projects for weeks because the NBA playoffs are on.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
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?
All of them, music and visual art especially.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
The folks comprising the various writing collectives I have or do work with; writers whose books I’m not interested in reading but are conceptually innovative and help me think about form; books I wouldn’t read again but were formative in expanding the boundaries of my thinking in my youth; books I wouldn’t read again but were imperative for escaping painful parts of my youth when I didn’t yet have a command of the written language to help me through it.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Write a novel set in the Chinatown supper club my grandfather used to own.
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 really like what I do now which is teaching and writing.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I teach because I love learning so I guess I write because I love reading?
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
20 - What are you currently working on?
Finishing Prison Industrial Complex Explodes, an excerpt of which recently appeared in Line; a subversive sewing sampler; internalizing the principles of water.
Thursday, March 06, 2014
A row of little ovens waits on the cliff.
I can’t wait to get inside.
Mother me, dry heat.
Bake me into a baby. (Emily Kendal Frey)
While in Florida, we wandered through the occasional bookstore, and I managed to pick up a copy of the most recent issue of Black Warrior Review (fall/winter 2013; 40.1). There are so many American journals I’ve only heard of, and haven’t managed to yet see, a constant frustration of the international border between us One thing I didn’t know about the journal, as the colophon reads: “Black Warrior Review is named after the river that borders the campus of The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. The city, river, and journal derive their names from the sixteenth-century Indian chief Tuscaloosa, whose name comes from two words of Creek or Choctaw origin—tusca (warrior) and lusa (black).” I’m struck by a number of the selections in this issue—writing from such familiar names as Emily Kendal Frey, Bianca Stone and Julia Cohen—as well as some names I hadn’t previously been familiar with, including Wendy Xu, John Zackel or Adam Atkinson, for his “jacket copy” series, three of which are included in the issue. Atkinson’s three pieces are strange, and strangely compelling and entertaining, even if every element in each poem might not work. They’re certainly worth the trip, and certainly intrigue; I wonder how far he’s planning on taking this suite of unusual poems?
Jacket Copy for The Cop Followed Frank Into the Diner
The definite article in this book’s title is to be eyed suspiciously. This poet highlights many and any cops, Franks, diners, and followings into. For instance: “The cop frankly dined on / the fellow.” Or: “It follows that Frank copped a feel.” Or: “Diner: 3 A.M. / Cops from the vice squad / with weary sadistic eyes / spotting fairies.” At times, it plays like bathroom humor, if the bathroom was at Stonewall Inn and stuffed full with lubricated bodies: “The cop’s forearm followed his fist / into Frank’s asshole. A fist appeared through a portal twenty years from now and nailed / a cop in the kisser.”
What really struck in the issue included some of the prose, far more lyric than what I’ve encountered in most literary journals these days, from John Zackel’s short story, “The Potential Energy of Mr. English,” to Ben Roberts’ “Snapshots from the Wedding,” which includes:
There were those who arrived in the early morning hours before the Wedding. Others had waited in that place some thirty and three years. Here is the appointed hour: three in the Post Meridian. No one who came even a minute after was admitted. The Wedding waited on no one but the Bride and the Groom. For it is written, ‘No one shall arrive late to the Wedding.’ It is as if you had not come at all.
Given how particular I am about prose these days, I’m intrigued in the flavour of the prose in the pages of this journal, most of which is far more interesting stylistically than most of the far-too-straight examples of prose I see in literary journals. A further highlight was Julia Cohen’s “I Cannot Name It, It Lives,” listed under non-fiction. Cohen’s piece begins:
You are the splintered cloud of wood. Hum of halogen, a stutter strikes your microcosm’s sharp connector thorn. Home & the uncut call?
The density of a word, its cellular level I poke intricately awake. Indigenous to repetition. A girl drains an object. Your full sink & floating asparagus tips.
Object painted with asthma attacks. Object between relationships. Frozen object taken out of the freezer.
Wednesday, March 05, 2014
conducted over email from March 28 – June 17, 2013
This interview originally appeared in filling Station #58. Thanks much to the editorial board for their ongoing support.
Ottawa poet Sandra Ridley has accomplished quite a lot over the past couple of years, from the trade collection Fallout (Hagios Press, 2009), which won a Saskatchewan Book Award for Publishing, to the chapbooks Lift: Ghazals for C. (Jackpine, 2008), which co-won the 2009 bpNichol Chapbook Award (shared with Gary Barwin), and Rest Cure (Apt. 9 Press, 2010), as well as collaborating with the writer/publisher jwcurry in a number of his orchestral “Messagio Galore” sound poetry performances and the more recent “Playback” sound poetry group, originally triggered as a response to the work of visual artist Michele Prevost. She won the Alfred G. Bailey Prize for the manuscript “Downwinders” and was on the shortlist for the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry for a manuscript she collaborated on with the Ottawa poet Amanda Earl, an award she had previously shortlisted for the manuscript “Post-Apothecary.” The trade collection, Post-Apothecary (Pedlar Press, 2011) appeared with great acclaim, and precipitated a series of readings across Canada, including stops in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Saskatoon, including an appearance at Harbourfront in Toronto in 2012, where she won the IFOA’s annual Battle of the Bards. On top of all that she has spent the past few teaching a poetry writing class at Carleton University, a class that, according to Shayla Brunet of the Local Tourist Ottawa blog, “taught the students how to punch up a piece with sharp sounds and living words, often bringing in guest speakers and even a funky sound poetry group.” Her third trade poetry collection, The Counting House, appeared in fall 2013 with BookThug.
rob mclennan: You wrote that “Fallout, my first book, is more earnest and pointed, simple story making, and much of it is located in the prairie landscape. Post-Apothecary is more hermetic and rooted in the landscape of the feverish mind.” How would you describe the pieces that make up The Counting House?
Sandra Ridley: There isn’t much of a landscape in The Counting House and not a strict narrative either. The four serial poems are centred on the lack of information about courtly affection gone awry and about the tallying of the gaps that kind of absence makes. The first section was catalyzed by my reading of interpretations of traditional English rhymes, as found in the Roud Folk Song Index—petty epics of kings, queens and maidens, and the pageantry and pedantry of their unnoble state of affairs.
The remaining three sections are connected in tone. One was written via ekphrasis, with me looking through a bifocal lens of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish and Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. The second section is a long poem composed in response to michèle provost’s art installation, ABSTrACTS/RéSuMÉS: An Exercise in Poetry, with that lens in front of me.
If there is any thematic continuity following from my first two books, it would come from my obsession with harm—as manifest through seclusion and (re)assertion.
There’s a substantial amount of accusation and denial in the house’s tallying, and as the text moves through time, the tabulation takes different forms. The non-story becomes clearer and more like a reckoning. I was curious about what an accountant’s notebook might look like in poetic form.
rm: Interesting you mention ekphrasis. I know of your responses to works by Pedro Istzin and Michèle Provost, as well as your full-on writing collaboration with Amanda Earl, which was shortlisted for the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Writing. What attracts you to working from and with others, and what do you feel it brings to your other works?
SR: For me, collaboration is a kind of reciprocal correspondence with another writer—and with the text itself. Sometimes, it seems, the words themselves converse. Looking at the project between Amanda Earl and I, it’s almost impossible to tell who wrote what. Collaborative work, as a whole, doesn’t really concern itself about personal authorship and ego. It’s more about attentive, tuned abandon. There are very fluid and unknowable trajectories. The exchange originates and thrives in otherness. Compared to writing alone, the creative process feels inherently more dynamic and unexpected. It’s a chance to relinquish control. Calls and responses, both the same element, push and pull through evocation and/or provocation—and that can be very rewarding, serious and playful at different times.
I have a difficult time saying NO to what may lead me outside of myself. What’s beyond typical habituations feels instinctively more exciting.
With ekphrasis, I feel more pressure. It’s a one-way response, a focused listening, not a true dialogue. And I hate to disappoint. Again and again, I’ve sworn that I’ll never (again and again) write poems through this approach. Really, it’s agony, especially if one adores the work one's responding to, like michèle provost’s art. The salve in this case is that with her the creative circle is turning another set of degrees—michèle recently created artwork for the cover of The Counting House. So, there is correspondence there, between us and between different media.
rm: In the interview you did with Michael Blouin for ottawater #7 (later reposted in Open Book: Ontario), you said:
I’ve never been overly concerned with narrative, but more interested in atmosphere or tone, or embodiment of emotion, or its complex of. Lately I’ve been thinking about how writing can enable readers to make associative connections or disconnections in ways that create movement or repositioning.
There may be loose narrative elements in my poems in that many of them are linked and piece together larger wholes. Nothing novel there. There’s lots of space to work within, or extend, in the Canadian long poem or serial poem tradition. I’m happy that Robert Kroetsch and Nicole Brossard have influenced me.
I’ve seen more than a couple references to your second poetry collection compared to a work of fiction. How do you feel about the description, and how deliberately narrative are your constructions?
SR: I have love for Robert Kroetsch’s work, so I’ll say that in A Likely Story, he wrote about text as being collage, as made through careful and deliberate placement of images, “side by side”, so that they can “suggest a possible meaning without insisting on it.” With Post-Apothecary, I was quite conscious of that capacity, but not just about imagery itself, but also the placement of the poems—the cumulative arc. Also, I love the idea of allowing spaces for suggestion, rather than for prescriptive insistence. If some readers feel that Post-Apothecary works under the guise of fiction, I’m heartened to hear it.
There’s definitely an overarching temporal perspective at play in that book. Front to back, it has a timeline, of sorts. Together, the fragments can be joined to signify meaning. It’s a montage I hoped a reader could build for themselves. Many classic elements of a novel are subverted. Setting, character, plot, point of view, and theme all shift via the trajectory of the atmosphere I was trying to develop. My failure is that the poems I write may not function alone. They need their other. If I do have constructions, it would be with the hope that I could elicit a curve of emotion through the poems.
rm: Why do you see that connectedness as a failure? Both Jack Spicer and Michael Ondaatje wrote of the impossibility of poems living alone, “no better than we can.” What do you think accounts for these connections between your poems?
SR: I don’t believe connectedness to be a failure. It’s a strength. I’d like for poems to function both in tandem with each other, but also as single, solo entities. Because of the inherent tetherings within a serial or long poem, there’s a difficulty in excerpting from it. It may not be possible to capture the essence of the length, or the arc, within one piece, but that’s something I’d like to work towards.
rm: I like that you mention Robert Kroetsch’s A Likely Story, a book I also return to, repeatedly. But one could ask, if exploring certain kinds of narratives appeal, how did you come to poetry over fiction? What is it about poetry specifically that holds your attention?
SR: One needs a storyteller’s heart to work in fiction and I don’t have that. I’m more interested in moments and minutia—disparate fragments—accumulating and condensing them. There’s an element of math too in writing poetry, which I’m drawn to. Every word and sound has to fit as essential elements to the line’s equation and to the geometry of the poem itself. Each element has to be requisite. If I were to write a novel, I strongly doubt that it would have the feel of one.
rm: Part of what has always attracted to me to your writing is in the importance you appear to place on uncertainty, often working through questions that could never be answered. How important is it for you to constantly be exploring a deliberately-shifting ground?
SR: There’s never one correct answer, or approach, to living. Life is a shifting ground. I’d rather circumnavigate everything with uncertainty rather than certainty—the tactic isn’t out of trepidation, but out of natural curiosity. What if? is more interesting than What is. It’s the act of navigation itself that is exacting.
As for writing, a know-it-all and didactic approach might have a practical utility for non-fiction work, but it’s quite boring (for writer and reader) in poetry and fiction.