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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

TtD supplement #81 : seven questions for Sue Landers

Sue Landers’ latest book, FRANKLINSTEIN, tells the story of one Philadelphia neighborhood wrestling with the legacies of colonialism, racism, and capitalism. She is also the author of 248 MGS., A PANIC PICNIC and COVERS, both published by O Books. Her chapbooks include 15: A Poetic Engagement with the Chicago Manual of Style and What I Was Tweeting While You Were on Facebook. She lives in Brooklyn.

Her poems “Oculus Study” and “No Bedrock But In Silt” appear in the thirteenth issue of Touch the Donkey. A further poem, “To protect the world we have, protect the invaluable, our priceless practice” is scheduled to appear in the sixteenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poem “Oculus Study.”

A: About Oculus Study:

I work in downtown Manhattan, and my commute takes me through the new World Trade Center transit center each day. Called the Oculus, it’s a train station/mall that replaced the train station/mall that was destroyed on September 11th. Its architect is Santiago Calatrava, who also built the Milwaukee Art Museum. I love the Milwaukee Art Museum; it looks like a bird about to take flight over Lake Michigan.

The Oculus design is in that same, signature, style. At its center, is an eye that opens like a gash exposing the new World Trade Center. It is stark white (requiring constant polishing) and the hallways are full of exposed rib-like support beams. It feels like you are physically walking through the belly of a beast in the figurative belly of the beast of capitalism. Or else it feels like a tomb, which it is essentially, since it’s built atop an actual gravesite. Really, the metaphors just trip all over themselves.

I wrote the poem when right after the building had just opened, when it was not well trafficked since all the stores inside were still under construction and not all the trains exited into it. So, I found myself walking through virtually empty corridors (aside from private security, military personnel, and city cops—all of whom are everywhere). Finding private space (albeit inside a privatized space) in New York is a rare thing. I felt like I was inside some kind of militarized church of capitalism. So, I decided to take notes each day to document its early days. I see “Oculus Study” as a kind of soundscape.

And where I landed in the piece, what I came to realize through writing it, was my own lack of engagement/awareness/protestation of the reconstruction of the World Trade Center complex. After 9/11 I experienced— like so many other New Yorkers —to widely varying degrees—a form of PTSD. And part of that was in response to the attack itself and part of it was due to the immediate, rampant, and dangerous nationalism that overtook both the city and the nation at large. So, part of my coping mechanism was to not visit that area of Manhattan. And not until a job took me there 15 years later, and writing this poem, did I realize how deeply tucked into the sand my head was.

Q: How do these poems fit in with the other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: I have been very focused on the here and now these days and my writing has been taking a kind of day-book form.

This is, in part, an outcome of having just recently published a book that took me four years to write (the book Franklinstein we chatted about in 2016), and the break I needed after completing that capital-P “project.” And it’s also a matter of necessity, in that I have limited time to write since I work full-time and am spending free time resisting my country’s burgeoning kleptocracy. So, observing and writing about my experiences on the way to and from my responsibilities is a way of keeping up with my writing practice.

And practicing this way, through observation, has led me into what I hope will become my next capital-P project: a series of poems about the NYC subway system. I have been riding every train line end-to-end, essentially using the train as studio space, and writing about what I see at a unique time in U.S. history.

The NYC subways reflect the full spectrum of economic and racial diversity in the United States—a spectrum that by extension represents the U.S. at large—and which I draw hope from every day. Solidarity is vital to resisting the current American president and his agenda, and I see my fellow straphangers as a community of power and strength.

Q: You mention your work being project-based. Was this always been the case? How did you get to a point that you were composing book-length projects?

A: Each of my books has taken the form of a book-length project. I envy poets who can create collections of poems, as opposed to series or sequences of poems. But I may have a tendency to perseverate. And series or sequences enable a kind of reiteration, a kind of braiding of poems, which feels more right to me. They give me the freedom and space to work topics through.

Q: What were your models for this particular kind of approach? Have there been specific poets and/or works that led you to composing book-length works, or have even helped you to adapt your approach of the book-length project?

A: Wasn’t it Spicer who said that poets write the same poems all their lives? Something about that sparked my interest in sequences. I think I interpreted that to mean that repeating or reiterating one’s poems enable the work to extend. Then there are Notley’s epics, but particularly Descent of Alette, which showed me how a poet could balance narrative with music. Then there’s Allison Cobb’s Green-Wood, which is a stellar model of investigative poetics, and I take incredible pleasure in its associative flow.

Q: Do you see yourself working on a singular, life-long project?

A: Not exactly. I think I have social and political concerns that will always inform my work. And perhaps my voice will remain similar throughout my writing life. But I think my life-long project is simply to keep writing, to keep thinking through writing, to keep finding insight and beauty through writing. And to continue to evolve over the course of my life as a writer, a thinker, and a poet.

Q: I’m curious as to your mention of the “day-book” form; what is it about the day book that appeals? What can you engage through such that you don’t feel as though you can otherwise?

A: My interest in the day book emerged as I was reading “Studying Hunger Journals.” I was at a writing residency, where I began each day reading Mayer first thing in the morning. For my two weeks there, I followed a pretty strict routine of daily writing, reading, and walking exercises because I wanted to practice behaviors I have a hard time sticking to in real-life. And I found Mayer’s approach to writing about daily life and dreams inspiring.

Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: I go back to Descent of Alette every few years – its scope, power, and rawness remind me of what poetry can be. I also re-read novels I love because the genre is so different from how I write, it gets me out of my head. There is one I particularly love, a classic Scottish novel, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. It’s one of those gothic novels that tells the story of good and evil from two different perspectives. It supposedly inspired Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; it’s totally awesome.




Tuesday, June 6, 2017

TtD supplement #80 : seven questions for Oliver Cusimano

Oliver Cusimano’s writing from an hour before his bedtime, in the basement where he’s lived the last two years, with his things.

His poem “Sautéed” appears in the thirteenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poem “Sautéed.”

A: “Sautéed” is the last poem in an invention I began about three years before. It could be because I grew up more in movies than books, but, however, I’d been frustrated with how little I could thicken my writing’s texture. As though nothing I’d written could tolerate a re-reading. The invention: I’d weave three strands of text into the same letters. They are... (1) My vocabulary limited to words drawn from a source text.  So that text’s sound shakes mine. (2) The sequential words of my text. And (3) at least one letter of each of those words is displaced onto its horizontally parallel line. Read these displaced letters sequentially, and they spell a message. At first these messages were quotations from books. Once I became serious, I started a series: words from Jack Spicer’s Language, and displaced letters to spell the names of doughnuts or coffees or coffee shops. Four more of these series, until, just before leaving the invention for something else, I made a few kitchen recipes. The four poems of “Sautéed” store ingredients and equipment for making sautéed onions: “Gallo olive oil,” “T-Fal frying pan,” “Seven white onions,” and “Simply Bamboo cutting board.” That’s a gist of the formal definition. 

Making the poems was just a matter of setting a date with the materials. There, then, I wouldn’t make simply whatever, but whatever I wanted. It was a way I had some time ago to query what I wanted. “Sautéed” is a record of its passage one certain night. ...The hope: the invention’s intersections, most basically, the horizontal of my desire and the vertical of the form, would witness something that could tolerate re-reading...

Q: How does this differ from some of the other work you’ve been producing lately?

A: I turned the page.  For the last eight or so months I’ve been writing something now titled CRITTERCISM. It began with an intention to write a mirror book to Stanley Cavell’s Pursuits of Happiness – an essay addressed to each of the seven Hollywood Comedies of Remarriage. That explicit content has been completely effaced, although recently rereading parts of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale has helped me to take another step (Cavell chooses it as offering early insight into the remarriage genre). But my growing thing’s vocabulary’s now mostly elsewhere: mammals and feathered dinosaurs; critters and bodies of light/late; rivers and rivals; to spore, score, and pour; arrows and eros; veer/steer, career, queer, near & dear; the para-bolic, sym-bolic, meta-bolic, hyper-bolic, dia-bolic; stupidity, idiots, dummies, being stupefied; the templum and the pro-fane; considerate contemplation and dis-aster...  If the poems were duende-work, this thing’s with an angel…

Q: You’re currently a member of the bpNichol Lane writers’ group. How did you first get involved, and how do you feel it has shifted the way you see your writing, if at all?

A: The writing group has disbanded, although many friendships from then continue, and continue to lead my way in writing and reading. I was first invited to the meetings by Michael Boughn, after being a student in one of his classes, “Contemporary Poetry,” summer 2011. It’s profoundly shifted my relation to writing. Maybe most basically, it exposed me to the experience of readers. I mean, some of the others would hear in whatever text I brought that night to share lines of sense I hadn’t intended, or detected, or meant, or thought could be meant. That’s dynamite. Who knows what it’s done, but because you asked, I’ll say, it shifted where I’d imaginatively located the field of writing and has accelerated my complication of its materials.

Q: What writers and/or works have influenced the ways in which you approach writing?

A: Most significantly, friends in Toronto. Some I first met at the bpNichol thing. Some from U of T classes I’ve audited. Some from neither of those places. 

Q: You’ve published at least one chapbook so far. Are you thinking much about larger groupings of poems as you write? Might there be further chapbooks, or even something larger?

A: The thought of gathering poems from the invention I've already mentioned to as much as a book has been in mind, and if I did, Swimmer's Group would publish it, a marvelous small printing/publishing company in Toronto.  I seriously recommend whoever reads this to look them up.  But at least for now a book of the poems exists only in the thin conditional spheres.  My energy to do with writing in the last few months has concentrated on the work now underhand, CRITTERCISM...

Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: Emerson and Thoreau again and again. And there are friends in Toronto – I leave our conversations energized. Thanks, rob.

Friday, May 19, 2017

TtD supplement #79 : seven questions for Douglas Barbour & Sheila Murphy

Sheila Murphy has been writing poetry for decades. First trained as a musician, she committed to poetry for the long-term. For the past decade and a half, she has added visual poetry and drawing to her work. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheila_Murphy

She is a partner in the consulting firm Work. Transformed. In that sphere, she blogs at https://www.worktransformed.com/

Murphy lives in Phoenix, Arizona.

Douglas Barbour is Professor emeritus, Department of English & Film Studies, University of Alberta. His books include Fragmenting Body etc, Breath Takes, &, with Sheila E Murphy, Continuations & Continuations 2; & the critical texts, Michael Ondaatje  & Lyric / Anti-lyric: essays on contemporary poetry. Listen. If was published by the University of Alberta Press, spring 2017. He was inducted into the Edmonton Cultural Hall of Fame in 2003.

Their poem “Continuations XCVII:” appears in the thirteenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poem “Continuations XCVII:.”

Sheila: This piece reflects our long-term creating as a team on the poem sequence aptly titled Continuations. For the past 16 years, we have been writing this work daily together, sharing each six line passages electronically. As I listen to this segment, I hear a more mature linguistic entity. I hear language take on the properties of living being that inflects and shifts its weight as situations spark in situation rooms all around us.

We activate our syllables in the midst of constantly changing political winds, sputtering lifelines, and people grabbing toward ropes that might evoke survival. Still, there is play. There is activation of our own souls, working as one, being in each instant separate from the other, and finding the threads that mean we are invoking an equivalency in atmosphere and yield.

In this piece, I hear admitting the anchoring effect of structures we depend upon in our breathless lives. I sense the flecks of tone that might preempt some other tones, maybe dangers, maybe just unwanted noise. Our sounds agree even as they signal turns onto less expected lanes. We move the piece by willing syllables then answering another tiny or immense wave.

I wonder who we were then, even this little space of years when this section was birthed into the ether. We sound different, yet recognizable to me as we lob recognition over a net that might be invisible, might be agreed upon as such or as some other mysterious thing.

We reflexively have spoken, sung, revealed ourselves perhaps a little as we heard what was to come from the passage each just read and answered here.

Doug: Sheila has summed this up nicely. It’s interesting to go back & look at this one, as we are quite a bit further along, but to where? As there’s no narrative here but for the ongoing writing practice, what occurs/occurred is just what happened at the moment, then, of writing. Certainly, as each of us played off the previous stanzas, especially, each time, the one before, all kinds of snaky connections just happened.

I do note that for some reason (though it happens elsewhere too) popular music allusions keep popping up (in). As well, the ‘method’ (if we can use that term) invites play, continually. I’m not sure what year the was written, but too the political of each country made itself felt, though we try (I think) not to mention it specifically; it’s just that we’re aware, & the allusive venture allows it to play into the ongoing verbal play. We did make the conscious decision, after #L (50), to start playing the lines out across the field of the page more, & the can be seen here, as adding to the move(meant)s of the language, & the little silences we wanted to register line by line.

We continue, & so as we change, it does so with us.

Q: How does your collaborative work relate to your individual works? You’d both been writing and publishing for some time before you began your collaborative project. Do you see your collaboration as an extension of your individual works, or something else entirely?

Sheila: Something else entirely, rob. I recognize that our work together involves a distinctive stepping-off point that has evolved over the 16+ years of our process so far. Therefore, although I am insisting upon something different from “an extension” of what we write individually, your question of “how,” is the point here.

I have been changed as a writer and a person in ways that I suspect are variously conscious and unconscious as Doug and I work together. One way that I find to be highly conscious is in the regularity of our contributions to the long poem. The frequency and the excitement of what we make is part of my life, an important one. Further, the attention to a 6-line piece of writing that begins from a structure means an element of discipline. Such discipline, added to other formatted boundaries I make for myself, generates focus. For me, focus and discipline comprise the framework for many wonderful parts of my writing life and with that my life in general.

Doug’s perception and writing surprise me all the time. The different turns, the viewpoints, the language, the context, deepen how I perceive. The early quiet of my receiving what he writes, then answering, makes it possible to go places I don’t expect to venture.

My own writing is something I forget about during our work. That’s good, I think. I don’t want to think about myself or different work from what we are doing. I pay attention to our flow and our responsorial movement. It’s a pleasure. Imagine the gift of having wider range and being part of something larger, and being inside of that, not just an observer. That’s only part of the gift.

Unconscious features no doubt play a role in this, but I don’t really know what they are. I believe that we’ll find out as we proceed, both together and individually.

Doug: Like Sheila, I say, Something else entirely. She makes a number of important points here that I agree with, & I certainly feel the same gratitude to her & her poetics for the way they push me into the next stanza, next section of this ongoing project, that certainly continues partly as (& because of) an aspect of growing friendship. When it began, I was in a bit of a block, & hoped that the pressure of a collaboration would help to get my own writing going -- & I think it did. But, as Sheila says, the format & the nearly daily push send me (us) into a kind of writing that does differ from what each of us does individually. (On the other hand, the whole reason I approached her had to do with my coming across the title of her Selected Poems, Falling in Love  Falling in Love  with You Syntax, & then the poems within; how could I resist?)

So, yes, there is a discipline attached to both the structure, that 6 line stanza, & the quick turnaround as we pass the poem back & forth via email. And that, of course, is something only possible in the last few decades (by 1999 email allowed for the quick turnaround; had we been trying to do this via regular mail, it just would not have taken off).

Like Sheila, I don't think consciously about my own writing when writing Continuations. But I do think that what happens there certainly affects my other writing, though I’m not sure exactly how. The sense of letting language lead occurs in both, but here the language leading is always other. On the other (other) hand, what I face with each new iteration is a slew of possibilities, & with the very first word I choose they start slimming down (but there’s always a sense of the other possible stanzas left out). And, I think certain themes begin to make themselves felt in each part as it proceeds, never blatant but nonetheless still hovering. Moreover, & this is one of the exciting aspects, Sheila continually surprises me with where she takes my last stanza, & then a kind of renewal begins again as I respond. I like the sense inherent in the process (which I hope comes across in reading them) of never knowing exactly what comes next: her gift to me in the ongoing action of the collaboration.

And, like Sheila, I really enjoy the sense of being part of something larger, some movement of language which stretches my awareness & craft, & in which a friendship continues to grow.

Q: I’m curious, had either of you any models in mind when you first began this project? Were there other collaborations that struck you as possible influences upon what you ended up doing?

When we began the project, both of us had experience in collaborating with others. I also had responded with interest in a collaboration between Dan Davidson and Tom Mandel. This seamless work was particularly good and possessed the sense of a single author that Doug and I have come to value increasingly over the years.

So far as influences, this was not a part of my own experience, in that the fact of collaborating is a very general jumping-off point. It is not inherently a model per se, but a practice. Thus, writing styles that each of us may have admired or admire now might be relevant, especially unconsciously. Doug has used the word “hovering” with respect to themes. That might be just the way to speak about influences. We know they are there, and then we don’t. But so they remain.

It may make sense to say that as one grows in writing, what others are doing become less immediately relevant, but the fact of almost constant reading means that there are mutual influences happening all the time. As social animals, as our mutual (now departed) friend Mary Rising Higgins frequently reminded me, we are functioning in concert with one another all the time. That’s just the way we humans are.

Doug: maybe it’s because we have been collaborating for so long, but I agree with Sheila here. Mostly. My only collaboration had been with Stephen Scobie in performing sound poetry, in which the act of collaboration was in the performance, while the writing of performance pieces was something we each did separately, essentially, & then worked on the performance together, an action that continually developed & changed as we did it. In Continuations, Sheila & I are writing in a kind of jagged tandem, &, as we’ve mentioned before, the ‘voice’ (or ‘sound’) of what emerges is a ‘third voice,’ somewhere in between what each of us does individually, though certainly carrying something of both.

On the other hand, I feel, & I think Sheila’s response points to a similar awareness, that in a way, unless one has never read anything (not a good way to approach any kind of writing), in a way you are always in a kind of collaboration with earlier writing (what that comment from Mary Rising Higgins points to).

In terms of having a model in mind, well, I certainly didn't. Just the concept of finding a way to work together to construct something interesting (to us anyway). And the structure we chose seemed to allow for a give-&-take, the necessary back-&-forth, that (utilizing email) would let us create this ongoing poem.

Q: You’ve very much taken the title “Continuations” as an extended catch-all; when you started the project, what made you decide to build something so potentially large and ongoing, as opposed to working on a series of singular one-off collaborations using different forms?

Sheila: rob, I did not envision any particular term for this project. Doug wisely titled the poem a reasonably short time following our start of co-creation. The continuity that is present represents something important to me. The recent and current mainstream culture lacks connectivity and flow, in my experience. Our work encompasses features of constancy and innovation in response.

Now that we have been moving on our work together for many years, there has been evolution. There have been changes that fit the time we are in. Cultural and political changes are evident in our poem. We are part of our environment, certainly. And within such environment, our thinking and feeling have the possibility of bringing about some shifts in each other and in readers.

Doug: I was going to say, It just growed. Certainly, I didn't plan that it would continue so long; neither did I (nor, I think, we) initially assume any binding ending to it. In fact, as Sheila says, the act of collaboration became an action-in-time, a continuing one, & so an act of continuing friendship as well. Part of what continues to happen is the fluidity of improvisation in a world always changing around us (possibly the fact that Sheila is in the US & I’m in Canada affects both of us in our doubled responses to each other’s new stanzas & to whatever is going on each passing day; the language always shifting gears around us undoubtedly acts as part of the surround within which we write, day by day). And, yes, the poem itself has developed, again not because either one of us deliberately & consciously attempts to impose a change, but because the poem-as-act keeps us on our toes, reacting, writing.

Q: You’ve published two full-length collections of your collaboration to date: Continuations and Continuations 2. How easy or difficult was it to decide where the first volume should end and the second begin (or itself, end)? Was it a matter of a particular number of pages or pieces, or were you attempting to find some kind of natural “ending” to close off each volume?

Doug: I would say that once we decided to try a publisher, we took a look at the general length of each section, & realized that about 25 would make for a fairly long book of poetry. Once the University of Alberta Press generously took the project of the first Continuations on, & we received some feedback from the readers, we fine tuned what we had written, editing down a bit, again in a spirit of collaboration, it ended up being the 130 or so pages each volume is. More or less in agreement, we seem to reach a certain length for each ‘Continuation,’ & so the pattern of 25 sections per book will likely continue, if we are able to publish further volumes.

Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

Doug: an intriguing question, as I suspect we both read a lot of new & good poetry (& one is always energized by new & interesting work [& the longer I took to answer the more names came up]). But I certainly go back & read some of a number of poets who were, & remain, important influences: Phyllis Webb, of course (& that marvelous recent Collected is just beautiful to ramble through); bpNichol; Creeley, Duncan, Levertov, & Olson, the New American poets (whole Pound-Williams line) who first excited me. Since the huge Collected came out, I spend a lot of time with Lorine Niedecker. Among the next generation, I keep up especially with Susan Howe & Michael Palmer. The tangled beauties of Basil Bunting. And in Canada: Marlatt, Moure, Newlove, Robertson, Wah, & others; some really intriguing poets of Australia (Robert Adamson among others) & New Zealand (especially Dinah Hawken, Michelle Leggott, & Bill Manhire). I’ve read Paul Celan for years, but am spending time with the huge Pierre Joris translation of his last books. So many younger writers, I can’t keep up, but a lot of them excite my interest. Then some of the elders gong way back (Dickinson, Keats, Wyatt). I’d better stop now.

Sheila: Gertrude Stein’s energy remains a source of magnetic energy, in addition to dazzling my sense of hearing and thinking via sound. Numerous poets captivate me. I read a great deal of brand new work by younger authors in addition to people whose work I have come to know very well. These days, the slower and more deliberately that I read, the more I grow into the work.

Middle English sonority, specifically Chaucer, enriches my hearing. I pride myself on reading Middle English aloud, a process I began in graduate school at the University of Michigan, where I haunted the language lab, practices for adjunct sessions for my Chaucer class.

I am an avid reader in a wide range of fields, including aesthetics, art history, behavioral economics, and statistics. Living at this time in history offers availability of texts due to electronic access and gloriously archived work shared by university and other libraries.

Humor is a huge part of my life, and I deliberately read many mysteries with eccentric characters just to become acquainted with individuals and ensembles who frame life in a shimmering way. I am not particularly interested in what happens, but I am interested in who is doing it.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

TtD supplement #78 : seven questions for Joseph Mosconi

Joseph Mosconi is a writer and taxonomist based in Los Angeles. He co-directs the Poetic Research Bureau and co-edits the art & lit mag Area Sneaks. He is the author of Fright Catalog (Insert Blanc Press, 2013), Demon Miso/Fashion In Child (Make Now Press, 2014) and Galvanized Iron on the Citizens’ Band (PRB Editions, 2009). His chapbooks include 33° Houdini (PRB Editions, 2008), But On Geometric (Insert Blanc Press, 2010), WORD SEARCH (OMG! Press, 2010), Renaissance Realism (Gauss PDF, 2016) and Carbon Elegies (Make Now Press, forthcoming). Writing has appeared in Triple Canopy, The Third Rail, Fillip, Material Press, Abraham Lincoln, Best Experimental American Writing and other journals.

An excerpt, “from Ashen Folk,” appears in the thirteenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the work-in-progress “from Ashen Folk.”

A: The poem sequence excerpted in Touch the Donkey is from an early section of my forthcoming book, Ashen Folk. The book continues a line of inquiry I developed in previous books like Galvanized Iron on the Citizens’ Band and Fright Catalog, wherein I classified and collaged the specialized language of subcultural, intentional or otherwise closed-off communities (military and trucker slang in the former, heavy metal and occult idioms in the latter). Given the subject matter, the language in those books tends to caricature performances of masculinity. In Ashen Folk I turn my attention to science fiction, fantasy and horror genres. I’m interested in how writers and filmmakers build the worlds of their books and films—the language used to describe the landscapes that permeate those worlds, and the creatures and races that inhabit those worlds. At the same time, it’s about my parents’ generation (roughly the generation of the 1960s and 1970s), and the worlds they attempted to build, and the words they used to describe those worlds—but also about how their world-building ultimately failed, both in everyday life as well as in more intentional communities like communes and spiritual cults. Part of the book traces the development of rock and (finally) hip-hop graphic design during this era, uncovering its incorporation of Victorian, Gothic, and Art Nouveau elements, as well as Hammer horror and psychedelic typography.

Q: What is it about the use of “the specialized language of subcultural, intentional or otherwise closed-off communities,” including the language of the 1960s and 70s (which could all be categorized as, one could argue, dialect) that appeals to you? What do you feel you’re able to explore that you couldn’t through other means?

A: I wouldn’t necessarily characterize the dialect of the 1960s and 70s, in general, as specialized or closed-off. Although I do think there is something about the way people spoke in the past that is inaccessible to us today, and therefore enigmatic and poetic, imparting an alternative knowledge. Sometimes watching old movies from that era, or from earlier eras like the 1930s or 1940s, I find myself entirely perplexed and astonished. (Diction like: “Innocence breakfasts!” in an early Theda Bera silent film still makes me happy). But for this project I’m specifically interested in counter-cultural slang; for instance, the weird, proto-fascistic, hipster drug speech one can find in some science-fiction novels from the era. I’m currently reading through old issues of the Berkeley Barb and the Berkeley Tribe, radical student publications…some of those old articles are so beautiful and so incomprehensible. But also so tragic. You can trace the early rumblings, in those weekly news and cultural reports, of the nascent California Ideology…the move from, say, Marshall McLuhan and The Whole Earth Catalog to Apple Computers and technocapitalism.

Q: I’m curious as to why and how you’ve decided to approach this material via the form of poetry. What is it you feel you’re able to do, or even explore, with such a study that another form wouldn’t be open to? What do you feel you’re able to accomplish via the poem, over, say, fiction or non-fiction?

A: I’m not overly concerned with how this work is received vis-à-vis its form. I use different forms throughout Ashen Folk. Some of it is purely visual (including a transtypograph of Arthur Machen’s 19th century horror novella The White People, rendered in a black metal font…which makes the pages look like screenshots of the early 1980s video game Galaga). Some of the work is prose and could be considered fiction (including a first-person account of a ménage à trois between a father, a son, and an alien). And yes, some of it is in the form of lineated poetry. It has a loose narrative but it’s not a novel. It relies heavily on design, on typography and color, but it’s not an art book. If the book had a thesis or argument I suppose it could have been an essay, but it’s too fantastical, notional and full of suspended judgments for that. On the other hand I don’t tend to use the “lyric I” very often in my work. There are usually shifting points of view, different voices. For instance in my book Fright Catalog, there’s a line: “I BREATHE SPEARS/SERVILE/A SHAVING OF THE HORN OF THE ORTHODOX CAVEMAN.” I mean, that first person is not me. I’m not breathing spears around here. I also end that book with the line: “FOR ENGAGEMENT TO BE PROFOUND/IT MUST FIRST BE SUPERFICIAL.” For me that’s a consideration, not a maxim. I don’t necessarily agree with that statement. It was adapted from something I heard the artist Thomas Hirschhorn say and I consider it one of the many frightening propositions cataloged in the book. Similarly, a line from Ashen Folk that was excerpted in Touch the Donkey, “There is no such thing as a private ontology,” is from a passage by Antonio Negri where he discusses the constitution of the commons. But to get back to your question…poetry is just so capacious as a form. There’s a lot of tolerance for what a poem can be. And the people I consider my peers, my coterie, are poets. My work is published and circulated in the context of poetry. I run a poetry reading series and publish poetry journals and poetry books. And I think the type of hybrid work I create is most at home, and best understood, in the context of poetry.

Q: How do you feel your work has progressed over the past decade or so, through three published books and a small mound of chapbooks? Where do you see your work headed?

A: I mentioned earlier that I think you can trace a line of inquiry from book to book, if not chapbook to chapbook, from Galvanized Iron on the Citizens’ Band to Fright Catalog to Demon Miso/Fashion In Child. But I only really started writing poetry seriously a little more than a decade ago. And actually, there’s a prose poem in Ashen Folk that’s just about a decade old—I remember reading it at my first reading ever, with the poet Simon Pettet (I recall him looking on skeptically from the audience). I’ve placed it in a new context, but it’s one of the first pieces of writing that I self-consciously thought of as “poetry.” Lately I’ve been working on short, 11-line poems, not-quite sonnets, but possibly the first poems I’ve written that look like traditional poems. I’m not sure how I feel about them yet. So far they seem to offer a counter-vision or end-game to the concerns of Ashen Folk.

Q: I’ve friends who are attracted to what they refer to as the endless mutability of the sonnet, a form that might be impossible to exhaust. What attracts you to the form, and what do you think you bring to the conversation of the sonnet?

A: I’m not sure if these poems are actually sonnets, which is why I call them “not-quite sonnets”.  There is no octave, sestet or volta. And I use no rhyme scheme. So they’re not traditional sonnets by any means. But as you point out, the sonnet form is endlessly mutable. It’s the sonnets of Bernadette Mayer, Ted Berrigan and Clark Coolidge that inspire me. Especially Coolidge—and even more than his sonnets, I love his weird, short poems in On The Nameways. If I could write poems even a fraction as good as those I’d be satisfied, because those are amazing poems, infinitely interpretable. But what I’m attempting to do is much narrower. I’m trying to write from a genre-specific place of science fiction and fantasy.

Q: Can you speak more specifically about that? What is it about the “genre-specific place of science fiction and fantasy” that you wish to explore via poetry generally, and, specifically, the sonnet?

A: I spent a semester last fall at Cal State Bakersfield leading a symposium on poetry, art and fandom. We called it the Bakersfield Fan Forum. We looked at poets and visual artists whose work seems to be motivated by enthusiasm for culture (pop and otherwise) rather than by traditional scholarship or research interests. We kept coming back to the concept of “critical intimacy.” Instead of traditional critical distance, we found that many poets and artists create work that is expressed as a type of enthusiasm or condition of love and empathy, even while the work itself retains a certain amount of criticality. I feel I often create work this way. At heart I am a fan of science fiction, fantasy and horror—I love certain elements about these genres and find them endlessly generative. But I also find certain elements problematic. And I find my love and enthusiasm problematic. Love, it’s a problem. I’m interested in exploring the tension between this enthusiasm, this love, and the fucked up things about our culture. The sonnet seems a suitable form to explore this tension—the sonnet traditionally has a problem/resolution structure. Even when it doesn’t, as in some postmodern collage type sonnets, there is a concision in the sonnet that appeals to me.

Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: It may not come as a surprise that it’s typically not poetry! Thomas Ligotti, Octavia Butler, Philip K. Dick, Borges, Proust, Lovecraft, Djuna Barnes, some of the comics of Alan Moore, Dan O’Neill’s Odd Bodkins, the children’s books of Mercer Mayer, the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Agnes Varda, John Carpenter and early David Cronenberg …whenever I get really sick I curl up on the couch and watch the entire extended edition of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy over and over…sometimes I like low fantasy and sometimes I like something a little grimdark…the art of Brian Froud, which must be attached to some primal childhood memory…I probably revisit the classics of dada and surrealist literature more than once a year…I have a silly tradition of re-reading James Joyce’s The Dead every Christmas…I listen to a lot of black metal and new age music, both genres calm my mind from sort of opposite spectrums…I have an edition of Robert Grenier’s CAMBRIDGE M’ASS hanging in my room that I turn to daily, always finding something new in it…the poetry and essays of Will Alexander…the writings and art of Mike Kelley…I won’t even get into all the television shows I watch…I could go on…

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Touch the Donkey : thirteenth issue,

The thirteenth issue is now available, with new poems by Joseph Mosconi, Jessica Smith, Douglas Barbour and Sheila Murphy, Sue Landers, Pearl Pirie, Oliver Cusimano and Marthe Reed.



Seven dollars (includes shipping). We haven’t spoken in eight years.


Wednesday, April 5, 2017

TtD supplement #77 : seven questions for Sarah Swan

Sarah Swan is from Winnipeg, but currently lives in Yellowknife, NWT. She is a former medic with the Canadian Armed Forces, a homeschooling mom, and a freelance fine arts writer. Her publication credits include the Winnipeg Free Press, Canadian Art, Galleries West, Studio Magazine, and Macleans’ Magazine. At one time, Sarah was also a poet, having published a book of poems titled Rapture Red and Smoke Grey with Turnstone Press in 2001. A chapbook, Domestica, is newly out from above/ground press. She is happy, and relieved, to be writing poetry again.

Four poems from “Domestica” appear in the twelfth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the four poems from “Domestica.”

A: The short answer is that these poems are about thinking. I’m a stay at home mom, and so lately my poems contain a strange mixture of thoughts about art, philosophy, my family, my home, and grocery lists. I think they are also about anxiety, and about the tremendous ups and downs of our inner lives. We live in a very anxious age. I read the novel Laurus recently, by Vodolazkin, and one of the characters is constantly writing on scraps of paper. For him, says the book, “the written word seemed to regulate the world. Stop its fluctuations.” I can really relate. And, the cleaner, more spare, and more exacting I can make a poem, the more stable I feel.

Q: How do these poems fit in with the rest of the work you’ve been doing lately?

A: For the past 5 years I’ve been writing about visual art for various publications, reviewing art shows etc. I love thinking about art, how it is made, what it communicates etc. In a way, I feel like many of the poems contain sentiments you’re not really allowed to include in a proper art review – things that are more personal than most professional art journalism allows. Art, you know, has a way of meshing with your everyday life, and with your personhood, if you let it. Though I’d love to write an article titled “How the Paintings of Neil Farber Affect the Psychology of a Stay at Home Mom,” in which I’d compare his crowded canvasses to my own too-cramped mind, I’m not sure who would publish it.

Q: After such a long gap since your first book, what finally brought you back to poetry? Why such a long gap between publications?

A: I wrote poetry over the years, but in stops and starts. But it isn’t very good. Somehow I lost my confidence. And then I had children. Babies and young children really do a number on the privacy and solitude needed for creative work. In the early years I really struggled with this. I missed being ‘deep in the machinery of my wits’ as Mary Oliver put it once. I couldn’t seem to find my way back to productive writing. Now that my kids are a little older it is certainly easier. What brought me back? I suppose the art writing. To the chagrin of a few editors, I was getting a little too wordy in my articles. I was using a ridiculous number of adjectives. Slowly it dawned on me that I needed to write poetry again. Also, a few encouraging people (like you, Rob!) really gave me the push I needed.

Q: Well, it did take me over a decade to figure out where you were, given your name change. Given the distance between publishing, what do you see as the differences between your work now and your work then? How do you feel your writing has developed?

A: Ha! Well, I moved a lot too! I’m really not sure if my writing has developed in any significant way. I feel like I’m starting again, from square one, and have to learn as I go. I suppose I’m more interested in brevity and conciseness now. Over the years I keep returning to William Carlos Williams, trying to figure out how he creates imagery with so few words.

Q: One thing I found quite striking about your book, Rapture Red and Smoke Grey, was the ways in which poems were grouped, whether as extended suites or sequences. The poems in Domestica (above/ground press, 2017), from whence the poems in this new issue have come, also seem to be loosely grouped. Do poems come to you in loose groups that form as you write? How do your poems begin?

A: Little phrases or word parings start rattling around in my head, and when I finally sit down and commit them to the page, the poem begins. Like many writers, I follow the words. Words are really unpredictable sometimes, and I love that. I write to figure out how I feel or what I think. I never know ahead of time. And yes, the poems sometimes arrive together. I guess I’m trying to work something out when this happens.

Q: When I first read your Rapture Red and Smoke Grey I saw something familiar there in the way long poems are constructed in the prairies, akin to works by Dennis Cooley, for example. What influences and/or authors led you to build poems and groupings of poems in the ways you do? What works have influenced the ways in which you write?

A: Dennis Cooley was a prof of mine. He was a godsend. He was really critical of my work, but was very kind about it. And he really helped in getting the work published. Of course I learned all about the prairie poets when I was a student. But, I remember being more affected by Winnipeg poet Catherine Hunter in those days, and George Amabile. Long time influences include Anne Carson, Annie Dillard, Marilyn Robinson. Those last two are novelists and essayists of course, but it is their turns of phrase, pace, and rhythm I so admire. They both have a voice that emanates a calm, quiet sanity. And they can both use language in wonderfully surprising ways. I’ve already mentioned Williams. And lately I’ve been revisiting Robert Bly – “My heart is a calm potato by day, and a weeping/ Abandoned woman by night. Friend, tell me what to do,/ Since I am a man in love with the setting stars.”

Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: Particular works: Holy The Firm and The Writing Life, both by Annie Dillard. Beauty of the Husband, by Anne Carson (best really long poem ever!). Also, I could listen again and again to Dear Heather by Leonard Cohen, and I read the Puritan prayer book when I feel especially low. Say what you will about the Puritans, but they had such a rich vocabulary! For the past few years though, I have really been reenergized by minimalist paintings and by the still life paintings of Georgio Morandi. His limited palette is so comforting, somehow. It’s therapy. And writing, for me, is therapy too.

Monday, March 27, 2017

TtD supplement #76 : seven questions for Shazia Hafiz Ramji

Shazia Hafiz Ramji lives in Vancouver, BC where she works as an editor and writes poems, reviews, and stories. Her poetry was shortlisted for the 2016 National Magazine Awards and is forthcoming in Canadian Literature and filling Station. She was co-editor for the "Intersections" issue of Poetry is Dead and has been a guide for Poor Yoricks' Summer and Sacred Jest, groups dedicated to reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.

Her poems “It’s not not talking about it” and “Mouth” appear in the twelfth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “It’s not not talking about it” and “Mouth.”

A: “It’s not not talking about it” and “Mouth” share a fixation with language, self-reflexivity, and sincerity; they are poems of negation and failure. Both poems are from a manuscript-in-progress tentatively called Cults of the Unwavering I. Cults takes its title from a title of a book in a footnote in David Foster Wallace’s novel, Infinite Jest. It essentially refers to a non-existent book within a book of fiction.

“It’s not not talking about it” arose after researching representations of authors who have committed suicide. For this poem in particular, I was thinking about the French surrealist poet, Jacques Rigaut, and one of my favourite movies, Oslo, 31 Aug, directed by Joachim Trier.

I wrote “Mouth” when I woke up after reading Edouard Levé. I don’t think I could articulate what it’s about, except the fact that it has to do with locationlessness and a failure of communication.

In these poems and in Cults, I see the autobiographical personas of authors who have committed suicide as a “heterotopic” space, to borrow the term from Foucault. This is a space I think of as being constituted by self-consciousness. It’s a space that feels deeply personal and/or actual but is held aloft by fantasy made possible by affective economies and a neoliberal framework.

Q: What is it about “the autobiographical personas of authors who have committed suicide” that prompted you to attempt them in writing?

A: I’m not attempting to inhabit and write the personas, but I am attempting to articulate the space in which they’re able to work. It’s a space that feels charged and desperate to me. Definitely neurotic. Barthes says that neurosis is a makeshift and he talks about Bataille who speaks of neurosis as “the fearful apprehension of an ultimate impossible.” Barthes says “this makeshift is the only one that allows for writing (and reading) ... the texts, like those by Bataille ... which are written against neurosis, from the center of madness, contain within themselves if they want to be read, that bit of neurosis necessary to the seduction of their readers: these terrible texts are all the same flirtatious texts.” I think this sums up why the autobiographical personas of authors who have committed suicide appeal to me – I’ve been seduced and now I am obsessed!

Q: How is the manuscript-in-progress taking shape? Was this conceived originally as a book-length project, or did the poems themselves move you into that direction?

A: The poems themselves moved me in the direction of book-length project/s.

Some poems that form part of the ms-in-progress are in my new chapbook, Prosopopoeia, which just came out with Anstruther Press. I’m happy that some poems will also find a home at Nomados Press. I’ve felt motivated to keep going because of these forthcoming chapbooks, which have given me room to develop and expand my work.

I’m hoping to have mostly new work in the ms, however. The poems for the book are developing; I’ve been filling up the index cards and stringing together ideas on big sheets of paper I keep stuck on the wall!

Q: How difficult is it to excise chapbook manuscripts out of a book-length unit?

A: My writing process is probably conducive to the chapbook-length ms, although I haven’t intentionally made it so. Because I become fixated with a set of ideas and do a lot of reading first, then develop poems in response over a period of time, and then break and do the same with an associated set of readings for poems, I end up having sets of poems that happen to be chapbook-length. When I was compiling my manuscript for Anstruther, I chose what felt right, but I also included poems that didn’t seem to cohere with the rest. I wanted to be edited by Jim Johnstone at Anstruther because I admire him and his work, and I work as an editor so it was a real treat to be on the other side. Jim was very perceptive, generous, and open-minded when we cut and tweaked together.

Q: You’ve mentioned your current project, which will solidify as a full-length collection. Has you work prior or even concurrent to this fallen outside of this collection? Where do you see your current work fit into a larger trajectory of your work?

A: The work for my manuscript has developed out of the poems in Touch the Donkey #12 and out of my chapbook Prosopopoeia. It focuses on surveillance and biopolitics, both of which grew out of my interest in suicide, self-reflexivity, communication, work, and technology, themes that shape the poems in Prosopopoeia.

I don’t know where I see my current work fitting into a larger trajectory of work. I trust the writing process enough to know that it will turn on itself once it becomes consistent and complacent. I think that I feel my writing expanding scope to engage with a world outside of its literary and philosophical influences while finding new ways to accommodate these influences.

Q: I do find it fascinating that you have a chapbook with Anstruther Press, yet your poems have been published in venues such as The Capilano Review and are forthcoming in filling Station — I wouldn’t see these as having much, if any, aesthetic overlap (I think of the late D.G. Jones as being a possible exception). Do you find it tricky to navigate the considerations and politics of genre and form when writing, or are you able to move easily as your interest allows?

A: That’s a complex question, one I’ve struggled with quite a bit. I think that working in publishing over the years has made me realize just how much categorizing different types of aesthetics can be a concern with branding, selling, and money. I realize that we’ve all come up with poetry camps together, tossing “lyric” poets to the right and “conceptual” poets to the left, or vice versa. I write lyric poems. I write conceptual poems. I write things that don’t look like poems but have been published as poems. Publication is where the categorizing begins, but even presses like Anstruther have their deviations in genre and form, e.g. Exit Text by Genevieve Robichaud, a total gem. I find it tricky when I think in false dichotomies made for simplified marketing-speak, but I can move easily when I remember that there are people like Jan Zwicky writing about Wittgenstein, and Ken Babstock writing about SIGINT, and Stephen Collis writing about “Blockadia.” And then there is Lisa Robertson and I just want to read.

I look forward to spending time with D.G. Jones.

Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: I return to David Foster Wallace consistently, particularly his novels Infinite Jest and The Pale King, and his short story “Good Old Neon.” DFW’s work makes me think through my concerns around language, technology, and sincerity with a deep and lasting understanding that only novels can bring. Jeff Derksen’s first book of poems, Down Time is always on my desk, as is Peter Gizzi’s In Defense of Nothing: Selected Poems. Hito Steyerl’s essays, The Wretched of the Screen and McKenzie Wark’s essays, Telesthesia always bring me back to my work. Nilling by Lisa Robertson has saved me from abandoning my work; I feel like it’s been a guide for me in so many ways. Daphne Marlatt’s, Meredith Quartermain’s, and Wayde Compton’s books are in close reach too, just in case the city comes onto the page, which happens often.