Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Laynie Browne, You Envelop Me



The roses by her bedside, thumbing. The texture of the roses is insistent. She stretches out in the mouth of the flower. In and out of the room no matter who is in the corolla. She needs to own the disc or eye. She wants to whisper to the bedside, to work beside the lurch. The bedside tray isn’t used anymore because she does not eat anymore. The mouth cannot see the straw and the small drops of water but the lips can feel. The feet are cut off yet still visible. They fling but are paralyzed. The bird outside the window knows nothing of the solitary room inside the rose. The bird inside this subject is not yellow but beyond color. The bird inside the window is hindsight and the bird inside her memory is flying. We’ll fly and remember every phrase or step we ever took. It takes a long time to dance all the way back past her many treetops— can be seen from the window and light and air. Music frees more than I could ever locate inside a register of night made by the dark wings of birds inside your hidden eyesight. (“Written at Bedside”)

Given how little I’ve read her previous works (she is the author of multiple titles, including over a dozen works of poetry and fiction), I’m enjoying American poet Laynie Browne’s poems in her latest poetry title, You Envelop Me (Oakland CA: Omnidawn, 2017); there is something in the way she stacks her lines on top of another to create something resonant, and meditative; something that speaks of and directly to the ongoingness of grief and mourning. As she writes to open the poem/section “September Shall Never End”: “To the funeral in your brain: // You are afraid to travel long distances so you do not read where the line / or the road is going.” 

Constructed entirely, one might say, of long distances, the poems in You Envelop Me are built as extended meditations, from the six part sequence “Owl Pages” and nine-part (running from #16 to #137) title sequence to the eight-part “An Urgent Walk Across A Moor.” Browne’s poems shift from the lyric fragment to the prose poem, each piece existing as part of a much larger canvas, something that stretches across the length and breadth of the nine poem/sections collected, and the book as a whole, writing out the loss as one that “envelops,” as opposed to simply an absence; loss and grief, as one knows, is far more complex. This book is very much one that I expect to move through for some time, and even cause me to check out what else of hers I’ve been missing. As she spoke to the process of writing the book in an interview with editor/publisher Rusty Morrison on the Omnidawn website:





One thing that very much surprised me in writing this book and in my mourning process was the connection between birth and death. Childbirth requires intense physicality, and finality of passage. Whereas in birth this rigorous process precedes the arrival of new life, I experienced death in a similarly overwhelming process after the passing of a loved one. I describe this process of mourning as similar to contractions in childbirth. And whereas contractions increase and intensify as birth becomes imminent, the contractions of mourning I experienced were most intense immediately after loss. Painful grieving can arrive from nowhere, several years later with the same force. They can swallow a mourner. Suddenly traversing time one finds oneself back at the brink of crossing. Time becomes non-sequential. It wasn’t writing the book which demanded anything of me. It was living through an intensity of sadness and separation. My writing became my companion, my oracle, and an attempt to remember and record what I experienced as gifts of proximity to spirit. I was cognizant during the time that this heightened sense of closeness would wane. I wanted the company of writing through the unaccountable, and lostness. I leaned even more heavily than usual on writing as contemplative practice, as well as on meditation and dream transcription. My hope— an ongoing and impossible aspiration— is to be entirely present.


Tuesday, April 24, 2018

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Dan MacIsaac


Dan MacIsaac’s Cries from the Ark, his debut collection of poetry, was published by Brick Books in September 2017. A trial lawyer and environmentalist, he served for ten years as a director on the board of UVIC’s Environmental Law Centre. His poetry, fiction and verse translations have been published in a wide variety of literary magazines, including The Malahat ReviewArc and Stand. In 2014, one of his poems received the Foley Prize from America Magazine. In 2015, his poem, “Sloth,” was short-listed for The Walrus Poetry Prize. His writer website is www.danmacisaac.com.  

1 - How did your first book change your life?
It enabled me to call myself a poet.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
After much music and story-telling in my youth, it seemed natural to come to poetry.

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 outpouring is quick. But I revise obsessively over months or even years. The first drafts are not false starts but getting to the finish line can be a marathon.

4 - Where does a poem or short story usually begin for you?
Most poems and stories begin in a quiet space, even in the eye of a storm. Often I can create that quiet space for myself in the midst of chaos as I grew in a large, boisterous family where bedlam could be the prevailing condition.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love engaging with an audience. Perhaps this comes from playing music in public since my childhood. Certainly, teaching and trial work reinforced my desire to connect, engage and persuade. Listening to and answering questions is particularly productive because I am responding to somebody else’s experience and point of view. Often, that insight from another person allows me to strengthen the work through thoughtful revision.

6 - What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
What are the stories of the Earth? What are the lyrics of the wind and the sea?

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture?
To be a witness and a whistleblower.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
The objective eye and unbiased ear are essential.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Here are two to start with: Listen. Look.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to verse translation to short fiction)?
For me, the movement between genres seems natural as they are akin. Each genre is like the form of water at a particular point in the cycle.

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 write in the late evenings and on weekends because my law practice is very time-consuming.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
When my new writing stalls, I work on the knots of an old piece. In the past, I would translate Spanish poetry into English verse in order to strike a creative spark.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Apple.

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?
Wilderness is my main muse followed by music in all its astonishing forms. In terms of visual art, my earliest influence was the French Impressionists with their focus on flow and light.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
The writers and writings important for my work are too numerous to list here. Certainly, my life of community and family—as well as immersing in nature—bring meaning and purpose to the art.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Go on an eco-tour of India with family.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be?
Study to be a full-time musician. I deeply admire my three family members whose life work is music.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Writing creatively is the most precise and evocative form of expression.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
One of the recent great poetry collections I read was Julia McCarthy’s superlative Return from Erebus.  Deepa Mehta’s Water is a marvellous film.

20 - What are you currently working on?
Revising poems and setting some to music.


Monday, April 23, 2018

rob's list of twenty Canadian chapbook publishers for The League of Canadian Poets' blog, #NationalPoetryMonth

My write-up on twenty Canadian chapbook publishers is now up at the blog for The League of Canadian Poets! My list includes: above/ground press, Apt 9 Press, AngelHousePress / DevilHousePress, Anstruther Press, Baseline Press, bird, buried press, Desert Pets Press, Frog Hollow Press, Gap Riot Press, In/Words Magazine and Press, Knife|Fork|Book, Nomados Literary Publishers, No Press, Proper Tales Press, Puddles of Sky Press, Rahlia’s Ghost Press, serif of nottingham, Shuffaloff/Eternal Network, Vallum Chapbooks and ZED Press. While I did write-ups on twenty, I also do present a further list of publishers, including some that haven't been as productive lately. And: chapbook publishers! You know I write reviews, right? Send me chaps!

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Queen Mob's Teahouse : Lisa Birman interviews Portland OR poet Claudia F. Savage

As my tenure as interviews editor at Queen Mob's Teahouse continues, the latest interview is now online, as Lisa Birman interviews Portland, Oregon poet Claudia F. Savage. 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 SchmaltzMary Kasimor's interview with George FarrahBrad Casey interviewed byEmilie LafleurDavid Buuck interviews John Chávez about Angels of the Americlypse: An Anthology of New Latin@ WritingBen Fama interviews Abraham AdamsTender and Tough: Letters as Questions as Letters: Cheena Marie Lo, Tessa Micaela and Brittany Billmeyer-FinnKristjana Gunnars’ interview with Thistledown Press author Anne CampbellTimothy Dyke’s interview with Hawai’i poet Jaimie GusmanHailey Higdon's interview with Joanne KygerStephanie Kaylor's interview with Kenyatta JP GarciaJaimie Gusman’s interview with Timothy Dyke,Sarah Rockx interviews Gary BarwinMegan Arden Gallant's interview with Diane SchoemperlenAndrew Power interviews Lauren B. DavisChris Lawrence interviews Jonathan BallAdam Novak interviews Tom SternEli Willms interviews Gregory Betts and Jeremy Luke Hill interviews Kasia JaronczykKaren Smythe and Greg Rhyno, Chris Muravez interviews Ithica, NY poet Marty Cain, Róise Nic an Bheath interviews Kathryn MacLeod, and Heather Sweeney interviews J'Lyn Chapman.

Further interviews I've conducted myself over at Queen Mob's Teahouse include:
City of Ottawa Poet Laureate JustJamaal The Poet, Geoffrey 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) hotmail.com

Saturday, April 21, 2018

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Liz Harmer

Liz Harmer is the author of The Amateurs (Knopf Canada, April 2018). Her essays and stories have been published widely, in such places as The New Quarterly, Hazlitt, Literary Hub, and The Malahat Review. She has been nominated for three National Magazine Awards, one of which she won.

Website: www.lizharmer.com

Twitter: www.twitter.com/lizharmer

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?


How (and whether) my first book changes my life remains to be seen. I will let you know.

Across my work I seem to be preoccupied with many of the same questions. The Amateurs, the novel to be released this year, has speculative elements that most of my other fiction does not. It has portals! Even so, in all my work I’m interested in questions of how we put society together (on which principles), and when to hold fast to commitments and when to be open to change. In all of my work I’m interested in how we know what’s real, what’s right, what’s true (if we can), and so I’m always circling back to topics like mental illness and religious belief. This comes out in The Amateurs in lucid dreams, hallucinations, memory loss, and a variety of other ways.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?

I was always writing the kind of stuff I was reading, and I got into an early habit of narrating my own movements and thoughts. I was writing fiction as a young kid, then I wrote loads of poetry as a teenager, and moved into nonfiction and fiction again in my twenties. I think it’s a mimetic tendency, and it has to do with what makes me feel free. I have heard that many people find writing to be torture—“I like having written” is how the quote goes I think—but I don’t find fiction writing to be torturous in this way. I do find writing poetry to be difficult, like pushing muscles to exhaustion in a workout.

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?

My writing comes relatively quickly, but the process is different all the time. For The Amateurs I had been writing around the ideas for a while. I had written a whimsical time travel story about heartbreak and loss, about two characters named Marie and Jason that feature prominently in the novel. I think I even tried to write it as a play at a certain point. I am decidedly not an outliner, so drafts, which often come quickly, end up being like outlines. I have to endlessly revise and rewrite and wriggle around in my drafts. I write many many many words. I’m not shy about starting things. Feeling finished is harder.

4 - Where does a work of prose 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?

Several of the other projects I’m working on are always on my mind—sometimes I sit down and write sections of them in a surge, or I’m reading around them and thinking about them. For instance, the novel I’m working on now has characters in it and situations I’ve been writing for maybe nine years, but I didn’t start working on it as a novel in earnest until three years ago. But I have another long project I’ve been working on for years and years, producing and publishing the odd essay, finishing poems, doing lots of research, and I still have no idea what form it will finally take.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I get very nervous doing readings, but I enjoy the thrill. I like being out in the world and meeting other people, and I haven’t noticed an effect on my creative process. For good or for ill, I like to splash my personality around, to paraphrase a character in The Golden Notebook.

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?

One thing I’m obsessed by is a question of how to live. It comes out of an anxiety about how little can be known about where to put one’s faith and about the future. I love Jane Austen for this reason—it feels like she’s testing out ways of living (prudence or daring, for example)—and I’m obsessed by what an Austen scholar named Marcia McClintock Folsom, writing about Emma, calls the epistemological problem of daily life—“we often feel that we do not understand what is going on.” I guess I’d put this even more strongly: most of the time we have no idea what is going on. So: how to live, what we know—these are my current obsessions. Going along with them are questions of commitment in domains of love and religious faith, questions of mental health and illness, ordinary morality as a worthwhile subject.

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?

I have too much self-doubt for this question! But I guess that I have found in my life that the arts, the literary arts especially, are a great and often primary consolation. I am soothed by beauty and ambiguity and careful thinking and introspection and observation—perhaps it is shallow to need soothing, but I don’t think so. Other lifelong readers I’m sure can relate to the fact that everything you read has a part in shaping one’s views and even, I think, one’s behavior. And the impulse to write comes out of that desire to be part of that long conversation about what it means to be human and to be living in the world—it is a religious impulse, somewhat. The role is crucial but small, because the writer must be one voice among many, and must never be overpowering.

Does the writer have a role outside of their writing? I guess I would want to believe that writers can live up to the gifts bestowed on them by their imagination. I want them to be great empaths and careful thinkers all the time. But of course writers are flawed and sometimes myopic and petty and disappointing, like everybody else.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Essential, definitely. I’m too proud and it’s no good for me to be too isolated. It’s a tough balance, but another muscle to work—do you find this, too?—to know how to hear and take criticism. Same problem I always face. But with The Amateurs I worked with two brilliant editors at Knopf with tons of experience—Lynn Henry and Amanda Lewis—as well as working with a mentor and listening to feedback from my good friend Seyward Goodhand and my husband Adam Harmer. I had very smart eyes on my work, which, if you can stand it, is a gift. Adam used to sit through me reading drafts of my novel aloud (okay, he still does this) and I could tell by his body language or the faces he was making whether something was working or making him cringe, and he has been helping me desentimentalize my sentences for years.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

The most useful advice is from Richard Bausch, who advises young writers to train themselves to write anywhere. For an example, he talked about writing while a child napped on his chest. I took this to heart, or I’d never get anything done. I am not superstitious about my routine. Sometimes I write in a corner of the living room while the kids are running around. I have written with a baby sleeping on me.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (short stories to essays to the novel)? What do you see as the appeal?

The appeal for switching between genres is a desire for novelty, I think. I find it hard to be totally and exclusively devoted to a very long project, and while I’m working on a novel it is a relief for me to work on shorter pieces. Takes the pressure off. I’m not monogamous in my work. It has been said many times before, but the expansion of the novel feels very different than the contraction of a story. They are different mental spaces, just as the space of essay—that always feels to me like pushing at a boundary—is different again. A novel never flows out of me the way a story does; stories don’t torment me the way novels do. Essays give me a chance to explore ideas using my own voice, which makes them much less ironizing or distancing then my stories might try to be.

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?

A typical writing day: walk the kids to school and come home to write from 8:30 until noon. Try not to get distracted by email, social media, self-doubt. Find gaps to write in: when the kids are distracted, when I’m waiting for class to start. Sometimes I get up early on weekends to write between 6 and 8 a.m. Most days are not straightforward like this, but I am reading, writing, or revising something every single day. Always feeding the work.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?


I give up on whatever I’m working on that’s stalled and work on something else. Or I start the thing from scratch without referring to the previous version. Another thing to do is to read as a palate cleanser: I read across many styles and eras so that I can pick something up and read it and that will charge me up. I use prompts from a writer friend. Going out and having cultural experiences—galleries, talks with artistic or inspiring friends, films—can work to fill me, too. I am rarely stalled for significant lengths of time, maybe because I have been doing this long enough that I know such feelings to be temporary.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?


Good question! I don’t know what home is anymore. The smell of jasmine is becoming associated with living in California. Whenever I smell strong pine sap smells I feel nostalgia for Ontario and New York State. My mom’s speculaas squares baking in an oven—a mix of ginger, allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves—will probably have me crying like a baby.

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?

Visual art and music offer moods and something deeper than what words can often get at for me, and intuitions. Watching films often makes me feel ready to make art. I try to be enriched by many things. Certain natural spaces, kinds of weather, and the awe I feel at the immensity of the universe, all these make me want to make art. Writing is my mode of response to beauty and terror and tragedy and love and the rest of the human experience, but that other kinds of responses to beauty and terror and tragedy and love and the rest feed my writing.

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

My forever answers are Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen. Virginia Woolf’s writing offered an early model for how to live unapologetically, and I have been moved deeply by both her fiction and her nonfiction. Jane Austen, via my father, was a part of my moral education. The stories and language of the Bible are always weaving into my thinking, as does Shakespeare and certain poems. I try to read everything Zadie Smith publishes. Other contemporary writers I feel invested in are Rachel Cusk, Heather O’Neill, and Elena Ferrante.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

A thousand things. I want to learn more languages. I want to act in a play and learn new art forms. I want to absorb myself deeply in a big research project. I want to get better at writing poetry.

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’m am interested in so many kinds of lives, and have contemplated many occupations. I have come closest to academic work, teaching, librarianship, journalism, publishing. I have considered becoming a doctor or a midwife (I like the energy around hospitals and around births). I love visual arts, galleries—thought I’d like to be an artist or art historian. Briefly I thought I would become a minister or a nun. Or an entrepreneur. I have dreamed of working at airports. I have dreamed of homesteading.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

When I am feeling dark, I sometimes worry that I am ill-suited to anything else: too moody, too difficult. But really, I was just always wanting to do it since I was a little kid. I was the kind of kid writing “novels” in my spare time at age 8. When I started a PhD, I started writing a novel on the side to cope with stress. It took me quite a while to figure out how to make writing a career or a life—how to train myself or find my way in. I spent quite a bit of time being in love and having children…these are my excuses for why it has taken me a relatively long time to publish my first book, since I have always seen myself as a writer.

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

Book: I will say that Sina Queyras’s My Ariel, a book of poetry that engages with Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, was full of gifts for me as a parent-writer-woman-etc. It’s so smart and so well done that I feel inspired to do better.

Film: I just watched Call Me By Your Name, which is breathtaking, and Lady Bird, which had me both laughing and sobbing. Timothée Chalamet is in both these films, incidentally.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I have finished a draft of a second novel (a social realist novel) and I’m working on a third (a love & doom story along the lines of Alice Munro or Madame Bovary). I’ve also been amassing research and working on portions of a long project that is probably nonfiction about my family history of mental illness. I think it is also about faith and marriage (as is the second novel). I have been working on some oddball stories as well, that involved animal metaphors of courtship behavior. Too many projects!

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Friday, April 20, 2018

Marthe Reed : December 31, 1958 - April 10, 2018



Many of us are still rather stunned by the sudden death of American poet Marthe Reed, a day after she suffered a stroke. I posted a small note on the above/ground press blog when I found out, but don't find I've made any more sense of it since. Some reminiscences have already appeared, including over at the Poetry Foundation website, the Small Press Distribution website, by Bill Lavender, by Megan Burns, and Megan again, over at the website for the New Orleans Poetry Festival, where Marthe was scheduled to read this weekend.

Going back through some of my own notes on this blog, I seem to have first encountered her and her work through the dusie kollektiv run by Susana Gardner, reviewing a collaboration she did with j/j hastain back in 2011. Thanks to this initial connection, I was able to meet her during the attempt Stephen Brockwell and I made to read in Lafayette, Louisiana in 2012, which ended up as an event hosted by Marthe at the University there, during her tenure. Not long after, Marthe and her family moved north to teach at Syracuse, and we even managed to convince Marthe and Michael to drive north for the sake of a reading (not once, but twice, including the above/ground press 20th anniversary event [see my report on such here; see her own kind words on the press, even, here and, quite recently, here]). She even came to the small press fair, sitting a table for Black Radish/nous zot.

She was open to participating in numerous of my ridiculous schemes, from her 12 or 20 questions interview, to Touch the Donkey, where I posted an interview to accompany her poems, to the Tuesday poem series at Dusie, my own Dusie Kollektiv, and the On Writing series at the ottawa poetry newsletter. We produced two chapbooks, and she even assisted in distribution of other chapbooks. It was especially upsetting to realize I'd announced her most recent chapbook earlier on the same day of her stroke; fortunately, she'd had copies in her hands for weeks by that point. And then, of course, a few days after her death, I received a package from Marthe in the mail, a handwritten note with a review copy of the most recent Black Radish title.

She wrote, she responded, she participated.

I really don't understand. Where did she go? What happened?

Given the occasional aspect of our correspondence, and the very few times I'd even spent time with her in person, none of this seems real. She was remarkably present, not only for me, but, it would seem, a great many other people across North America. Where did she go?