Friday, May 31, 2013

Mary Austin Speaker, Ceremony


It began with a walk in the woods.
The weather became us.

We came to find the owls
who became trees.

Feathers whitened
the corners of our room

which became our winter habits.
So we invented songs

which became the animals
who abided unseen

in a house that reason left
every time we travelled

into ourselves. When we awoke
our arms were crossed

over our chests like bats.
Dreaming became us.

Only the movies delivered us
from a winter of no color.

We turned on the snow.
We turned on no.

Yes became us
like forever and sunsmell

like patterns and lace
not ever about whether

the world was good or bad
because it was only both.

This is why
we followed the animals

and the animals
followed us back.

Introduced by Matthea Harvey, Iowa City poet Mary Austin Speaker’s first trade poetry collection, Ceremony (Slope, 2013), is an exploration of celebration and ritual, and the poetics of physical and metaphysical space. Opening with short couplets of endless variety and smallness, Speaker’s poems are built through the accrual of phrases, such as the poem “The Talking that Places Make,” that begins: “As awkwardly as / always this city // will grow / after I and everyone // leave it / get taller.” Each poem exists nearly as an endless, single threaded line, broken up into phrases for the possibilities of further meanings to enter. The book is structured in four sections: “The Field of Unspeakable Color,” “To Inhabit,” “You Can Have It All” and “Numerousness.” The short phrase-lines of the poems in the second section, the twenty-part section/sequence “To Inhabit,” is reminiscent of the smallness of Robert Creeley’s poems, sans the stanza breaks. Each section flows with the stagger and slight interruption of line breaks, but without pause, and intrigue for how they might be read aloud—with a regulated slowness or a rushing speed? The first poem in the sequence reads:

this seductive calm
belies a fire
roiling there
in the darker
quiet we have
no calm no
a legion
of fecund
reasons and
two shoulders
squaring to
protect this
gentle paradox
we’ve yet
to name

Even with stanza breaks, such as the poems in the other sections, there is an urgency to Speaker’s lines, her poem-sentences pushing deeper into her dreamy wisdom. In her introduction, Harvey writes:

How to talk about a book that delves into mystery head-on? Maybe by tacking how it bewilders (indeed, there is a poem titled “Bewilderment.”) Speaker’s short, sometimes unpunctuated lines allow you to track her myriad transformations, thing we couldn’t see without the poet’s magnifying glass: “this too / is exhaling: particles moving off / in their tiny boats, violet and charged // toward each pole…” Her lyrics revel in the personification of the natural world (trees have wrists “whitened with wind”) and words (“a flood of yes”), but also the reverse: “Our fingers grew restless // and skittered over tabletops, like mice.”
Speaker’s work offers so many delights—tiny tide pools of rhyme, the abstract made concrete, the concrete made uncertain. In “Origin Story” she writes, “Dreaming became us,” and the doubled nature of that statement is exactly what this book enacts. We enjoy how dreaming makes us look, but also how it makes us look.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Lynn Xu

Lynn Xu was born in Shanghai.  She is the author of Debts & Lessons (Omnidawn, 2013) and June (a chapbook from Corollary Press, 2006).  Her poems have appeared in Best American Poetry 2008, Boston Review, Critical Quarterly, Octopus, Poor Claudia and others.  She co-edits Canarium Books.

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 both does and does not, of course, on a very basic level, it must be both.  It does, because for a lot of people ‘writing poems’ does not become ‘poetry’ until it is published, so based on this logic, having a book gives my poems permission to be: poetry.  But this engine of ‘affirmation’ is almost entirely outside of me and my relationship to writing.  I say ‘almost’ because it has, without a doubt, been a positive reinforcement for my self-esteem, especially when I find myself struggling elsewhere.  However, life remains a self-reckoning, and ‘having a book’ (unfortunately) is not a magical handkerchief I can wave in front of it and make the various pains of psychic life go away.  Put another way, it does not make writing itself any easier.   

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I am a terrible storyteller.

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’m not sure I can distribute writing into “projects,” although I use the word to give thinking a sense of time.  I am a very slow thinker and slow writer.  I need to live with something for a long time (in reading and in writing) before I can sift, crab-like, through the sediment.  In this way, re-writing is my primary mode of writing. 

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?
Writing begins where understanding is weak and desire is strong.  By “understanding” I mean: constitutive knowledge.  And by “desire” I mean: a proleptic sentience. 

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Public readings are a part of my practice.  Subsequently, I find it strange that it is an unquestioned part of the poet’s work, as if it is an easy (or worse: natural) extension of the work itself, which it is not.  For reasons which threaten self-possession, public readings remain a sphere foreclosed from criticism.  But clearly the “reading” aims to offer a different experience from reading in private, to oneself and in silence.  Poets should not be expected to be performers as well.  But if one does take on the task, I think more should be made to offer different ways of listening and attention. 

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?
I like formal problems, because they are problems of history. 

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?
Today, maybe, the writer fights against the becoming-obsolescence of her craft—against the giant wave of multi-media displays and screens—so seeks to change it, to meet the demands of changed-experience.  The temporality of consumption is so fast and just getting-faster—and the appetite for ‘the next best thing’ is always on the tip of our tongues.  We are dissolute, completely useless, mediating mediated media.  I think of poets (and makers of creative work in general) as an “active culture” (the things advertised in yogurt or in Kombucha)—which tries to metabolize existing culture, because it cannot but completely internalize the gathering debris of its own unsuccess.   

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I loved working with Rusty Morrison.  She was essential. 

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
There is no reason to be mean.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
For me this is very difficult.  I need several weeks (even months) to transition from critical prose back into poetry.  It is easier the other way around. 

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 do not have one.  Sometimes I do not write for months.  I have not written for months.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I sleep.  I shower.  I wash my hands.  If I really want to get something done and cannot, I get erratic and buzz around like a self-distorting rock. 

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Funnily, the smell of plastic rain jackets in the rain.  This is not a Proustian madeleine, because it is not associated with nostalgia, but rather dissonance and a kind of nausea. 

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?
I suspect that the most powerful “influences” are ones that remain unconscious—or, cannot be delineated as a material presence as such. 

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 would like to learn how to swim.

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?
Filmmaker, no question.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I don’t know.  I came to poetry through visual art, so I am quite attached to the image-making faculties of language—these can be metaphor or the simple accretion of affect over time, hardening into a material presence you can and cannot touch. 

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The opening sections of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or blew me away.  I feel the same way about the first five chapters in Cao Xueqin’s Story of the Stone.  As for the film, Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev lives with me like a strange crater.     

20 - What are you currently working on?
Friendships, and catching up on sleep.  

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Yoko’s Dogs, Whisk


wipers sluice pollen
from the windshield—
tea ceremony

the porch lights up
bats return to the barn

moon my companion
on the road
heading home

in the house I left last night
people are brushing their teeth

I’m always intrigued by the notion of the poetic collaboration. When it’s done well, it manages to highlight a way of writing not individually possible by any of the writers involved. This new small collection, Whisk (St. John’s NF: Pedlar Press, 2013) is composed by “Yoko’s Dogs,” a writing group founded in 2006 by the Canadian poets Jan Conn, Mary di Michele, Susan Gillis and Jane Munro, each of whom have been producing their own individual works for some time. Given that the four of them might share the same writing space and space on the page, the narrative disconnect is one that anyone might expect, and their own individual more narrative works blend together into a form that might be seen as akin to the North American ghazal, or even the English forms of the haiku. In these poems, the four-become-one seem to favour highlighting narrative smallness, extending the small moments of the English-language haiku, and the tangentical leaps of the ghazal. Through these moments, the finest of the poems shine through, but when the lines attempt to connect too much on the narrative level is when the pieces break apart.


a cricket stops singing –
that really is Prince Andrei
home and alive

wren at the window
I move, it’s gone

the girl practices trumpet –
in the canola

rain is my shower
I share a bed with field mice

Why fight to artificially connect what might be entirely impossible? It’s as though the collaborative fifth that is emerging from the mix is one that distrusts the narrative impulse, and yet, the group hasn’t yet learned to trust that voice, and their own intuition, instead fighting against the very thing they are attempting to create. The strength of the poems in this collection come through the disconnection itself, four voices merging into one, and through this, the best of the poems come. The tension between their own individual voices and that of the collaborative fifth is compelling, but that tension doesn’t necessarily make the best poems. Instead, it highlights the fact that this is a collaboration-in-progress, yet something that reads as far more lively than similar works by Pain-Not-Bread. The book reads as an interesting experiment, and one they should certainly further, but perhaps an idea that hasn’t quite solidified.


the rambling rose
is not averse to flowering
among yellow leaves

Pearl gets her hair done once a week
at the salon downstairs

watch dog or barred owl
whuuu hu whoos
in the woods out back

misses the rabbit on the second try
that bobcat