Thursday, February 22, 2018

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Michael Mirolla

Michael Mirolla [photo credit: Salvatore Mirolla] describes his writing as a mix of magic realism, surrealism, speculative fiction and meta-fiction. Publications include the novel Berlin (2010 Bressani Prize winner); The Facility, featuring a string of cloned Mussolinis; and The Giulio Metaphysics III, where “Giulio” battles for freedom from his own creator. Other publications: the short story collection The Formal Logic of Emotion; a punk novella, The Ballad of Martin B.; and two collections of poetry: Light and Time, and The House on 14th Avenue (2014 Bressani Prize). His short story collection, Lessons in Relationship Dyads (Red Hen Press, California), took the 2016 Bressani Prize. The novel Torp: The Landlord, The Husband, The Wife and The Lover, set in 1970 Vancouver, was published in 2016, and 2017 saw the publication of the magic realist short story collection The Photographer in Search of Death (Exile Editions). The short story, “A Theory of Discontinuous Existence,” was selected for The Journey Prize Anthology; and “The Sand Flea” was a Pushcart Prize nominee. Born in Italy, raised in Montreal, Michael now lives in Oakville, Ontario. For more:

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
As I had been writing since Grade School and had many short stories and poems published before my first book (The Formal Logic of Emotion), its publication didn't change my life all that much – except perhaps to give me confidence about future publishing. My most recent published work is in some ways a throwback to some of my earliest: more speculative fiction/magic realism style material versus a more realist/naturalist approach in works such as Torp and Lessons in Relationship Dyads. In some ways, I feel as if I've gone full circle or perhaps an upward spiral is better – as if I could reach down and touch themes and concepts from my past which would be a long way off if I actually had to go back to them.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Well, while my first piece of published writing was a poem ("The Strange Land"), published in Canadian Forum when I was 19, I wrote a lot more fiction than poetry in the early days. And I also concentrated on writing plays. It was a play, for example, that got me into the MFA creative writing program at UBC way back in 1969. And one of the first awards I received was from the Ottawa Little Theatre Playwriting Competition.

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 projects start quickly. A few notes and I'm off. The writing itself also comes quickly. In spurts. When it comes to drafts, however, it all depends on the particular project. Poems comes out pretty much in finalized form. Most short stories also emerge almost fully formed. Novels are a different animal and may go through numerous iterations before something comes out that I feel works. Again, when it comes to notes, novels can create many files of research, much of its tangential and perhaps never destined to see the light of day.

4 - Where does a poem or 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?
I think this definitely depends on the particular project. For an individual poem, it comes out of an image ... a feeling ... a colour ... Short stories arise from all kinds of sources – newspaper articles, a philosophy text, the internet ... A novel starts with a major concept/conflict/big idea. I've converted some short stories into a novella but, when it comes to novels, that's how they start. Although I have taken pieces of a novel and turned them into short stories.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
When I was young and an "artiste," it was the garret for me. The world would come a-knockin'. Now, I love readings. I love the interaction with the audience. They have very much become part of my creative process.

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?
If I had to come up with one major theoretical concern behind my writing, it would be the intersection between self-identity-society. Questions: What does it mean to be human? What makes us essentially human? How does the individual consciousness interact with that of others? At what point can we state that a human being has been stripped of all the non-essentials that accrue over a lifetime? In my opinion, the questions being asked in much of today's literature miss the point: rather than asking what it means to be human, they tend to ask what it means to be this or that -- gender, race, etc. Rather than looking inward to see what's right and what's wrong, they tend to be directed outwards, looking to place blame elsewhere.

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 see the role of the writer to be similar to that of Socrates: to question the consumer propaganda, to sort the truth from indoctrination, to fight for what is truly individual and unique versus the sheep/herd mentality, to serve as a voice that combines head and heart in order to get down to what is really important and valuable for our short stay on the planet. Unfortunately, too many of our writers today are too busy in-fighting and dreaming of superstardom to appreciate these tasks let alone take them on in their writing.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
As an editor myself of more than 40 years' standing, I might be prejudiced in saying that an outside editor is very important in the writing process. But I wouldn't go so far as to say "essential". I guess it depends on how much a writer trusts his/her instincts. My own experiences with working with an outside editor have always been positive.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” – Samuel Beckett

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to plays to short stories to novels)? What do you see as the appeal?
It has been relatively easy to move from one genre to another. Often I'm working in three or four different ones at the same time. I also find it easy to move from non-literary work to the literary output. A switch somewhere? Maybe. The appeal? Well, for me, each genre has its own way of "saying" something. The aim is the same; the approach is different. One thing is constant: language.

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?
Not much of a routine these days. Typical day begins with email. Some days, I jot down what has been brewing overnight; other days I pull up something I've been working on; still others, I do secretarial work.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
It's an internal process these days. I used to turn to the classics – poetry, novels, philosophical writing. But now I turn inwards.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Grated orange peels.

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?
Yes, all of the above (as strained through books).

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?
Take a trip to Mars

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?
Before I switched to English Lit and Philosophy at university, I was taking advanced math, chemistry and physics. I probably would have ended up as a chemist.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I have been writing since Grade School. Without writing, I wouldn't exist. From the start, it was my way of making sense of myself.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Last great book: Gravity's Rainbow. Last great film: Il conformista and/or Amarcord.

20 - What are you currently working on?
I have been working on: a new collection of poems (tentatively titled Repositories); a new collection of short stories (speculative fiction); and a novel I have been struggling with since 1993 called The Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Cole Swensen, On Walking On


Cooler this evening, particularly crossing the bridges, where the wind picks up and is making a mess of the surface of the water. People walking, many tonight, and almost in rhythm, as if it were a way of collectively resisting the wind. I stop and look over the parapet, down onto the quay, where five pigeons seem to be marching in step in a single, evenly paced line. I know this is only the projection of a human attachment to order onto random avian behavior, but still, it’s a remarkably straight line and remarkably evenly paced.

American poet Cole Swensen’s latest is On Walking On (New York NY: Nightboat Books, 2017), a book-length suite of poems engaged in the subject of walking, from her own notes on the subject to her responses to a lengthy list of other works by Geoffrey Chaucer, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Dorothy Wordsworth, Henry David Thoreau, George Sand, Virginia Woolf, Thomas De Quincey, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Gérard de Nerval, Guillaime Apollinaire, John Muir, Robert Walser, W.G. Sebald, Werner Herzog, Harryette Mullen and Lisa Robertson. The back of the collection includes a healthy bibliography, which Swensen introduces by writing: “This series hopes to honor the millennia-old connection between walking and writing without trying to be in any way definitive. It started with an interest in texts written by a number of writers about walks that they had taken and then branched out in various idiosyncratic ways. Idiosyncrasy, in the long run, became the only principle of both selection and order.”

The book moves from sections of shorter poems (up to six, but as few as two) alternating with sections of longer sequences focusing on specific works, from “ROUSSEAU: THE REVERIES OF A SOLITARY WALKER,” and “SAND: PROMENADTES AUTOUR D’UN VILLAGE,” to “SEBALD: THE RINGS OF SATURN” and “ROBERTSON: ‘SEVEN WALKS’,” a sequence echoing Lisa Robertson’s “Seven Walks” from her Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture (2003), that includes:

And thanking memory, we spent every afternoon in a park, hiding
a different century    my guide with the endless peaches, and then

suddenly a fig. Suddenly threw our class affiliations into striking
relief, and disappearing to everyone but ourselves, we let time slide

through us. Yet cannot deny: we felt hands too dragging through
our own, leaving empty. We were not alone. (“The Second Walk”)

As I’ve referenced in reviews of some of her previous books, what I’ve long appreciated about Swensen’s poetry books is the way in which she seems to approach each book-length work as a study on or around a particular subject, having written previously of landscape paintings (see my review of her LANDSCAPES ON A TRAIN), gardens (Ours: poems on the gardens of Andre Le Notre), hands (The Book of a Hundred Hands) and graveyards (see my review of her Gravesend), among nearly a dozen other lyric stretches across a realm of research (a great deal of which centres around medieval history or subjects). In certain ways, her multiple poetry collections over the years have evolved from collections of linked lyrics to book-length essay-poems, even to the point of each title existing as a single, continuous poetic line. On Walking On, also, moves temporally, threading another line through the collection that runs from the medieval walks of Chaucer, through to a far more contemporary walk via Lisa Robertson, allowing each step in the poem to move the collection forward through history and time. Responding to questions from Maria Anderson via The Rumpus in 2016, on an earlier selection of the manuscript (posted as a chapbook by Essay Press) [I also wrote on an earlier, albeit different, section of the same manuscript, here], Swensen wrote:

Cole Swensen: No, I’ve never thought about it specifically, but in fact I neither take anything along nor take anything away. My focus is on the rhythmic relationship between body and ground and the visual relationships among the elements of the always-changing scene.

But yes, sometimes I do have rules, or rather constraints. One I’ve been working with lately, for instance—and it only works in urban spaces—is the single constraint of turning left whenever I encounter an obstacle, something that makes me stop, such as a traffic light or a T intersection or crowd congestion. I’ve been doing a series of these walks this fall, always starting from the same place and always for the same length of time, to see how differently the walk develops. I end up in very different places.

Rumpus: This is a fascinating constraint. Have you ever looked at these walks visually? Drawn them up on a map to see the shapes?

Swensen: Yes! Exactly! I’m so glad that comes to mind! I do draw them out on a map, and in that way, the kinetic experience becomes a visual work, and the perspective that has been linear and time-based suddenly becomes bird’s-eye-view spatialized. I have also then retraced the lines on a separate sheet of paper, thus removing the map and turning the lines into an abstract drawing.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Pattie McCarthy, margerykempething and qweyne wifthing


thirty-eight years I lived with my husband
when I was not on pilgrimages or
locked in the buttery saying prayers by rote
thirty-eight years & fourteen children I
lived with my husband     I am no virgin
I am no heretic either                         margery
kempe conceives in a hairshirt a last child
a lapse   this sentence from several failed
attempts   margery kempe was not embarrassed
had ful many delectably thowtys fleschly
lustys     & inordinate lovys to hys persone
we cannot count the blackbirds in the tree
fast enough    they move about & fly away
disappointed I am not my husband

From Philadelphia poet Pattie McCarthy comes two new, beautifully designed and produced chapbooks via a collaboration between eth press and Punch Press, her margerykempething (2017) and qweyne wifthing (2017). It would be impossible not to see these two publications as siblings, even as two sections of a larger, book-length work-in-progress. Through these, McCarthy researches into and through the terrain of Medieval mystics, women, their labour, tales of mothering, birth and other related topics that have existed throughout the whole of her published work-to-date, from bk of (h)rs (Apogee Press, 2002) and Verso (Apogee Press, 2004) to Table Alphabetical of Hard Words (Apogee Press, 2010), Marybones (Apogee Press, 2013) [see my review of such here] and Quiet Book (Apogee Press, 2016) [see my review of such here]. As she spoke of her interest in Medieval subjects as part of an interview for Touch the Donkey a couple of years ago:

I’ve been in love with the medieval for most of my life. This definitely has something to do with attending Catholic school—the art! The syntax of Catholicism, too, led me to studying the medieval. I think that most people are irrationally attracted to certain historical periods. The way medieval literature & art employ narrative—fragmented or episodic narrative, specifically—also the sense of simultaneity, layers of time in the work—it makes sense to me. On a more personal note, the lives of the saints were like fairytales for me. I mean, when I was a little Catholic schoolgirl we learned about all the girl-saints, about Mary—& those stories stuck to me. My school taught us a great deal about medieval women mystics, about Joan of Arc, about anchoresses in their cells, & it was very ‘cult of the virgin’ when it came to Mary (at least as far as I remember). Even as a child I think I understood that those stories all had to do with power, with women’s bodies, with literacy. I think the nuns taught us about the mystics to counteract “woman is a temple built over a sewer” & “woman is defective & misbegotten” & the rest of the church fathers (which I also remember well, clearly). When I walk into The Cloisters or the Musée de Cluny or the medieval galleries at any art museum, I want to sit down & think & be quiet. I feel that way in medieval churches as well—it’s what left of religion for me.

margerykempething and qweyne wifthing are each composed as collections of twenty-four sonnets (with all poems in margerykempething sharing the title, as do all the poems in qweyne wifthing, same), and margerykempething takes as its prompt the manuscript Book of Margery Kempe that sits in the British Library, an edition that sits as a single copy, giving Margery Kempe the title of “first English autobiographer.” When a digital version of “medieval mystic” Kempe’s manuscript was released online in 2014, Alison Flood wrote in The Guardian:

Kempe lived in Norfolk from around 1373 to 1440. After she had given birth to 14 children, she made a vow to live chastely with her husband, and embarked on pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela, Italy and Germany. Her devotion was expressed through loud cries and roars, which often irritated bystanders, but she became famous as a mystic, and claimed to have conversations with God.


Biggs said the memoir, which has just been digitised by the British Library, was “perhaps the first autobiography written in English”, and is also “a remarkable record of the religious life of a woman during the tumultuous 14th and 15th centuries”.

McCarthy, on her part, cites the 2000 Longman edition as her source for quotations, but the 1985 Penguin edition, her “undergrad copy,” as her “sentimental source,” writing out the details of Kempe in a line both straight and slant: “margery kempe invents the autobi- / ography &       vernacular tell-all / the backs of quiet houses from the train / a month & a half of inconvenient / Sundays [.]” The second (admittedly arbitrary on my part, given the publication of these two items appear concurrent) collection, qweyne wifthing, centres itself not on a singular specific text or individual, but on multiple, citing David Baldwin’s Elizabeth Woodville: Mother of the Princes in the Tower and Linda Simon’s Of virtue rare: Margaret Beaufort, matriarch of the House of Tudor. She centres the collection instead on multiple Medieval matriarchs, royalty and sex, as “wifthing” is defined, variously, as sexual intercourse with a woman, an affair connected with a woman or wife, or, simply, a wedding or coupling. In her poems, lines and phrases repeat and are reordered, reworked, allowing echoes and threads to exist throughout; repeating even as the poem progresses, furthers, further on. The repetition exists almost as a reminder that the stories might belong to different women of the period, but are far too familiar, and far too often repeat the same array of mistakes, misfortunes, loves and losses. As McCarthy writes:

they breathe together that she is always
the same woman          but those are different
women      bent at the waist with grief hands
over their mouths        covering what sounds
it’s just that in that moment of recognition
that point in the process of knowing one’s
own fear & grief                      everyone moves the same
there never was a ‘before we were lovers;
after there were children & thus   infinite time
both stretching into the future & also
in every second     so that any second in fear
over the baby’s body was excruciated & endless
& in the gap of the mouth   to be or become
wide open        the whole round earth in his blue mouth