Sunday, December 17, 2017

Danez Smith, Don’t Call Us Dead

this is how we are born: come morning
after we cypher/feast/hoop, we dig

a new one from the ground, take
him out his treebox, shake worms

from his braids. sometimes they’ll sing
a trapgod hymn (what a first breath!)

sometimes it’s they eye who lead
scanning for bonefleshed men in blue.

we say congrats, you’re a boy again!
we give him a durag, a bowl, a second chance.

we send him off to wander for a day
or ever, let him pick his new name.

that boy was Trayvon, now called RainKing.
that man Sean named himself i do, i do.

O, the imagination of a new reborn boy
but most of us settle on alive. (“summer, somewhere”)

Minneapolis poet Danez Smith’s second collection, after the award-winning [ insert ] boy (Portland OR: YesYes Books, 2014), is Don’t Call Us Dead (Minneapolis MN: Graywolf Press, 2017), a powerful collection of poems that work to reclaim both a physical and a cultural space in “an America,” as D.A. Powell writes in his back cover blurb, “that conspires against black, brown, queer, and trans bodies [.]” “i’ve left earth in search of darker planets,” he writes, to open the poem “dear white america,” a poem that encompasses the entirety of the strength of the collection for its display of intimacy and vulnerability, its savage critique and absolute shock and horror, and for its repeated and passionate pleas for safety, sanity and peace. He writes: “we did not ask to be part of your America (though are we not America?” The opening poem, “summer, somewhere,” is a twenty-page sequence that writes on shootings and young black boys, citing Trayvon and Sean, pleading for peace, and the upheavals of living in a country where black boys are shot and killed with disturbing regularity. As he writes: “don’t fret, we don’t die. they can’t kill / the boy on your shirt again.”

& even the black guy’s profie reads sorry, no black guys

imagine a tulip, upon seeing a garden full of tulips, sheds its petals in disgust, prays some bee will bring its pollen to a rose bush. imagine shadows longing for a room with light in every direction. you look in the mirror & see a man you refuse to love. small child sleeping near Clorox, dreaming of soap suds & milk, if no one has told you, you are beautiful & lovable & black & enough & so—you pretty you—am i.

Part of the strength of this collection is in the way that Smith writes in such an open, intimate and unflinching way on how black men in America are seen and treated, half-threat and half-invisible, as well as from the perspective of living and loving openly as a gay black man. Don’t Call Us Dead is heartfelt and heartbreaking, uplifting and remarkable. In the same tenor as recent titles by American poets Layla Longsoldier [see my review of such here], Shane McCrae [see my review of such here], Eve L. Ewing [see my review of such here] and Morgan Parker [see my review of such here], Smith’s is a poetry of resistance, from proclaiming himself to actively resisting the false narratives so often constructed that continue to do an incredible amount of damage, both within and beyond the boundaries of America. His is a body that not only proclaims itself, but feels an enormous responsibility, for itself and those around him. In a recent interview conducted by Kaveh Akbar over at Divedapper, Smith writes:

I want to do more than talk beautifully about dead black people. I want to make sure black people stay alive. I’m hoping that’s where the conversation will go. I hope it can bridge beyond conversation into action. I don’t want the energy to just move on to the next thing.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

my (small press) writing day : new essays + a submission call,

I’ve been curious for some time about The Guardian’s occasional feature “My Writing Day,” and thought it might be interesting to do a blog of the same, “for those of us who might never make it into The Guardian.”

[note: this isn’t a dig at The Guardian; I just thought it might be fun to play with the format]

So, like a fool, I’ve started a new blog: my (small press) writing day.

The list of current and forthcoming essays include pieces by Amish Trivedi, Colin Morton, rob mclennan, Sonia Saikaley, Amanda Earl, Jean Van Loon, Karl E. Jirgens, Lisa Pasold, Robert Martin Evans, Jennifer Pederson, Carla Hartsfield, Jason Christie, Eleni Zisimatos, Christian McPherson, Chris Johnson, Eileen R. Tabios, Joshua Corey, Claudia Radmore, Oscar Martens, Sacha Archer, Larkin Higgins, Kristina Drake, Kate Siklosi, Jared Schickling, Karen Smythe, Yanara Friedland, Paul Carlucci, Catherine Owen, j/j hastain, Gil McElroy, Adele Graf, Angela Lopes, Adam Thomlison, Brenda Schmidt, Michael Blouin, Jeanette Lynes, Keegan Lester, Jeremy Stewart, Zoë Landale, Jacqueline Valencia, Michael Dennis, Emily Sanford, Jennifer Baker, Aaron Tucker, Chris Galvin, K.I. Press, Nathaniel G. Moore, April Ford, Paola Ferrante, Alan Sondheim, Bänoo Zan, Emily Saso, Annick MacAskill, Ian LeTourneau, Jessica Hiemstra, Teri Vlassopoulos, Matt Jones, Sofia Mostaghimi, Joshua Weiner, Anita Dolman and Ronna Bloom. And submissions are very welcome...

Friday, December 15, 2017

Ongoing notes: the ottawa small press book fair (part two,

[poet and Apt. 9 Press publisher/editor Cameron Anstee, putting together further copies of Gil McElroy's latest; to the right, Michael e. Casteels at the Puddles of Sky Press table] Further to my previous set of notes (and, see, I’m writing about Toronto’s Indie Literary Market as well), here is another item I picked up at our most recent fair:

Ottawa/Colborne ON: I’ve been pleased to see Colborne, Ontario poet, curator and critic Gil McElroy [see my 2015 Jacket2 piece on him here] revisiting older works, such as the publication of his Sum: Word Maps (Ottawa ON: Apt. 9 Press, 2017), a slightly reworked version of a much older poem that blends the language grids of, say, Wilfred Watson, with the sensibilities of Steve McCaffery. I’d be curious to see where some of this revisiting/excavation might lead, and if it might mean a shift in his current work, as contemporary McElroy begins to collaborate with a previous version of his writing-self. Produced with the “Original Introduction” from 1983, McElroy’s grid-poem plays with numbers, fractions and patterns, writing: “Consider an arbitrary (and imaginary) structure composed of two parallel “lines” running horizontally, each “line” containing thirteen possible letters spaced at equidistant intervals [.]”The afterword, “After Words,” provides a bit more context to the piece (which would be difficult to easily replicate here):

As a working poet, though, most of my visual poetry dates back to the late 1970s/early 1980s. It was there that Word Maps took shape. I’d been casting around for a way of “disorganizing” words as semantically meaningful units, conversely seeking some organization scheme that would allow me to do something visual without devolving into what I thought of as the decorative or ornamental. While I wasn’t necessarily opposed to the aesthetic by any means (the words I chose to map, for instance, were most certainly the product of aesthetically based decision-making), so much visual poetry I had seen struck me as trite, especially by comparison with what visual artists – Lawrence Weiner, Gerald Ferguson, Jenny Holzer, even a piece by ‘earth’ artist Robert Smithson – were doing with language. It was far more sophisticated than an awful lot of visual poetry I had seen by poets.

But it was still held hostage to meaning, and I wanted to get outside of that. So, for good or ill, I thought that systemization would be just the trick, and I embraced one of Modernism’s great devices: the grid. I wanted to see words – the purely visual unit – differently, to strip away anything hinting of meaning, connotation, metaphor, what have you, and consider the pure artefact. Hence, Word Maps, visual units mapped onto an organizational grid that prevented meaning from adhering and so gave sight to something elemental, essential. In an introduction I wrote for the first appearance of Word Maps in Grain magazine (November 1983 issue, “Visual and Written Languages in Dialogue”) and for an exhibition at AKA Gallery n Saskatoon, I pompously referred to a mapped word as a “genotype,” borrowing from science, and the semantically meaningful ‘worldly’ unit as (logically) the “phenotype.”

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Queen Mob's Teahouse : Chris Muravez interviews Marty Cain

As my tenure as interviews editor at Queen Mob's Teahouse continues, the thirty-fifth interview is now online: Chris Muravez interviews Ithica, NY poet Marty Cain. 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 Ball , Adam Novak interviews Tom SternEli Willms interviews Gregory Betts and Jeremy Luke Hill interviews Kasia JaronczykKaren Smythe and Greg Rhyno.

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)

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Sennah Yee

Sennah Yee [photo credit: Alice Liu] is from Toronto. She writes poetry, writes about films, and writes poetry about films. Her debut poetry/non-fiction collection, How Do I Look?, was published by Metatron Press in 2017. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Cinema & Media Studies, focusing her research on gendered robot design in media and technology.

1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book has connected me with more like-minded writers and people experiencing similar microaggressions and insecurities, remembering sneaky cheat codes on The Sims... it’s been surreal and affirming!

My two flash fiction chapbooks before this, The Aquarium and The, have the same dry tone, but otherwise they feel so different from my writing now – the most obvious reason being that they were pure fiction, and my work is mostly non-fiction.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I actually came to poetry last! Haha. I wrote short stories as a kid (mostly unintentional rip-offs/fan-fic of TV shows I was watching), then studied screenwriting in undergrad. I liked it, but I wasn't that great at it. I turned to poetry because I felt free to experiment without worrying about logistical things like film budget, location scouting, casting, etc.
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?
When the mood strikes, I write VERY quickly, with minimal edits. But this burst is rare, and when it’s over, I don't write anything for a really long time. I need to do more casual free-writing, the way visual artists doodle for fun and practice.

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?
I definitely write a bunch of short pieces that end up coming together into something bigger. I didn't think any of the pieces in my book were linked until my wonderful editor, Jay Ritchie, pointed out common themes and patterns.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I always get sick with anxiety before reading, but I still love doing them! I like meeting people and seeing who connects to what. But most of all, I love listening to others read their work. Maybe I’ve just been lucky to attend some really magical and moving readings, but lately I’ve been getting even more out of hearing others read than reading their work on my own!
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’m still navigating how I choose to balance the important parts of my identity so that they are acknowledged and validated, and yet also not wanting myself or my writing to be reduced to those parts. As for the kinds of questions that I am trying to answer with my work: Who/what has control over how I look at myself/the world? In what ways can I return this gaze and reclaim this control? On a larger scale, the question of “who gets to tell stories?” is often brought up in the community – I think this is an important question, but even more important is who is listening to these stories? Who is elevating them and giving them the space to grow and be heard?

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?
Writing is a tool of empathy for me. You can rock people’s worldviews or just get your reader to laugh with you about a bad Tinder date you had. I love that it can do either and both of those things – teach, entertain. I’m not one to tell writers who or what they should be, but I do think that they should be aware of the kinds of power and influence that they can have.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
If we’re on the same page, it’s so easy and essential to me! I thrive on feedback, prompts, and deadlines. I was so lucky to have Jay as my editor for my first book; he made the whole process was a breeze.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
In the words of Uncle Ben from Spider-Man, “with great power comes great responsibility.” Hehe, but seriously. That and pay artists for their work, and get paid for your own work.

10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
Sadly I don’t have a writing routine – I mostly write when I'm supposed to be doing something else! A typical day for me is going to school, doing readings, refreshing Twitter on my phone in front of an open Twitter tab on my computer, and Netflix.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Movies! They're both my procrastination and inspiration, which is a bit dangerous.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Cat litter.

13 - 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?
As I said earlier, movies for sure are a huge influence on my work – not just the narratives and visuals, but also the art of screenwriting. I love how screenwriting aims to communicate as much information as possible in the most visual, succinct way. It's very poetic!

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Mitski, Jenny Zhang, Ocean Vuong, and Claudia Rankine come to mind instantly. Their work is so gut-wrenching and beautiful. Phoebe Wang’s poetry is also stunning; she has also been an incredible mentor to me and to so many other young writers of colour. Last but not least, the Metatron family are crucial to both my work and my life outside of it! The first Metatron book I read was Pony Castle by Sofia Banzhaf, which I inhaled and knew immediately after that I had to find out more about the press. Ashley has created this incredible community that is so inspiring and supportive; I am forever grateful.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Write a novella! Something that is soft sci-fi.

16 - 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 wouldn’t mind being an editor – I liked story editing screenplays a lot during undergrad. I’m currently Interim Arts Editor at Shameless, a volunteer-run magazine for young women and trans youth. It’d be amazing to do something that strengthens the community like that full-time.

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
It is the only way that I can make sense of things that move me and affect me, for better or for worse.  

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

19 - What are you currently working on?
My homework! Ho hum.