Sunday, December 05, 2021

JoAnna Novak, New Life


Beyond copse and corpse, hedgerow and scarlet hip,
the tent is white and obvious. Inside, a bride

begins her tour. Her train is gone, veil a jubilate
square. Now congratulations and congratulations and

this baby suits you. I have traded my Napoleon
for chicken. I am one sad stop, inevitable as a dandelion

clock. A dessert fork dings the first glass. Cousins
constellate and fib. Look at little mama, how

beautiful, peacocks gawping the photo booth, look
at some smokers off stubbing cigarettes on the empty

lawn. It is easy enough to smile through toasts, friends’
confessions, a brother’s snafus in a dress

of Normandy blue. Secrets macramé the neck,
and silence the sonar, starlit in rain.

Across the lawn, our story skips the dogwood grove:
I too walked an aisle, really very happy.

Writer, editor and publisher (founder of the chapbook publisher and online journal Tammy) JoAnna Novak’s third full-length poetry collection, following Noirmania (Inside the Castle, 2018) and Abeyance, North America (New York/Kingston NY: After Hours Editions, 2020) [see my review of such here], is New Life (New York NY: Black Lawrence Press, 2021). Constructed in five numbered sections of narrative lyrics, New Life articulates her pregnancy, often in surreal, descriptive tones, composing short bursts of lyric narratives that explore around and through the core of the experience. As the title poem, “New Life,” opens: “does not survive on protein alone. My ankles are bound / to tear marching this reef, yet what a thrill—bloodying / white pumps. The island is mine. A mole on earth’s back, / bull’s eye, bingo, scratch, bite. At seven and twelve and thirteen / weeks, the pulse shimmers like a firefly: interruption.”

There is a shift in tone and tenor from her previous collection, one held in state and space, “ultrasounds and sustenance” (“Forecast”), engaged in a simultaneous anxiety and calm, the contradictions of anticipation, agitation, isolation and connection through the stages of pregnancy. “Wading in waist-high— // wait,” she writes, as part of the flow of the poem “Tides,” “where is the waist?       My bulge, // my bilge, my breasts, my rolled // neck: feels like the rest of my life, // totting / weeks to translate days, [.]” She writes of phallus, lake, glitter and agency with a swagger and rapture. Clearly, hers is a lyric of pointed precisions and very physical gestures; of effects bore down to bone. “What would you do with / a thick moment off the map?” she asks, in “House Sitter,” or in the poem “Trimester,” where she writes: “Give me grander // reptiles on this inhospitable island. Garter on a swing tray, / diamondback tub, / Animal, I don’t want to go in            the pool / and I won’t lose my tongue // and I won’t like your table. Give me ether, / at least twilit sleep, Tonga Room / dreams, trek over stream, / rain and rum on the half hour— [.]” There is such firm confidence in her lyric, even as she navigates such unfamiliar terrain as this particular state of the body and impending birth; a confidence that holds firm to every lesson garnered, glanced and won, as the two-page poem “Everything and fireworks” ends:

I’ve learned what I have
to do is a sentence;

what I get to do
is a gift.


Saturday, December 04, 2021

(Re)Generation: The Poetry of Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, selected with an introduction by Dallas Hunt

not calling you at this moment means only that i am writing poetry
because my voice cannot tell the story

of this (“driving to santa fe”)

I remember hearing Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm perform a handful of times throughout the 1990s, so I’m appreciating the opportunity not only to revisit her work, but to garner a far wider and deeper appreciation through the recently-released (Re)Generation: The Poetry of Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm. Selected with an introduction by Dallas Hunt (Waterloo ON: Wilfrid Laurier University, 2021), (Re)Generation was produced as part of the Laurier Poetry Series of critical selecteds. As Hunt offers through his critical introduction, Akiwenzie-Damm’s work emerges out of a community, influenced by and responding to the work of those around her, from forebears to contemporaries. Hunt writes on the emergence of her work as a publisher (founding Kegadonce Press, an Indigenous publishing house, in 1993), editor and organizer, all of which simultaneously broadened the scope and possibility of her poems, including how “she ‘started thinking about sex and sexuality and the utter lack of it in Indigenous writing.’” Selecting from her five books and chapbooks, as well as some uncollected pieces, Akiwenzie-Damm writes an accumulation of direct statements, one upon the other, constructing single thought-line/phrase upon single thought-line/phrase; sometimes with pause, and other times at full speed, in a rush. She blends a storytelling and spoken word aesthetic with the act of capturing full on the page a sensuality, full heart and a rush, writing history and heartbreak and breath. Writing on her explorations of desire and the erotic, Hunt offers, further on: “In many ways, this is what Akiwenzie-Damm’s work achieves: the ability for Indigenous peoples and communities to feel joyous touch, sexual pleasure, and intimacy, in spite of a colonial world that has attempted to rob us of these affective registers, both historically and in the contemporary moment.”

river song 

take me down to the river’s edge with a rush of tears and the sound of angels’ wings
give me breath with a host of desire and a single touch lifted from despair
wash my fears at the martyrs’ grave with the blood of saints shouting holy names

sing my pain in mid-summer rain with forgotten words and a tongue of fire
dance my heart like a laughing child like a drunken man with sallow cheeks lash

my burdens to another cart with ropes of your hair and no mercy feed my head
with beauty and stories collected like shells from old women in kerchiefs

and storm whipped beaches forget my ugliness and the imperfections large
and small that make me ashamed but human carve my name in the dead of night

beyond all stars and forgiveness


Friday, December 03, 2021

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Shawn Rubenfeld

Shawn Rubenfeld has had short fiction appear in journals such as Permafrost, Columbia Journal and Portland Review. He has a Ph.D. in English and Creative Writing from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he is currently a lecturer. He is the author of the novel, The Eggplant Curse and the Warp Zone, out May 2021 from 7.13 Books. He lives in Omaha.

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

Luckily it didn’t. My life hasn’t changed, and I like it that way. In fact, I’d much prefer that my work changes someone else’s life--that someone, somewhere can connect with it in some impactful way.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I actually didn’t! As a kid, I was primarily drawn to poetry. I carried a notebook around school with me which I’d fill in with poems whenever I was supposed to be taking notes (I had a science teacher once tell me you take such good notes when really I had spent the entire year working on my poems ). Back then I wrote fiction, too, but it wasn’t until I was an undergrad that fiction became my primary focus. That was because of a generous professor of mine, Heinz Insu Fenkl, who I worked with as part of an Independent Study. I walked into his office at the beginning of my sophomore year and told him I wanted to write a novel. He asked for a sample of my work so I gave him a story I wrote for a recent workshop. He told me he was impressed by it but that I shouldn’t write a novel. At least not yet. I needed to read first, to start small. So, we spent the entire semester talking craft, reading work by Toni Morrison and Madison Smartt Bell. I walked away with two new stories--one of which would eventually make up part of my MFA applications--and an understanding of intellectual generosity that I try to carry with me throughout my own academic life.

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?

It’s so hard to pinpoint because each project looks different. I’ve struggled slowly with some stories but really cooked through others. I would say that first drafts, at the very least, always resemble the finished product, even if just in tone. Revision is such an important part of my writing process, which is why I so frequently emphasize it when I teach.

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?

If it’s a novel then I know I’m working on it from the very beginning. Maybe it’s because one has to occupy a certain mental space before committing to a novel.  But as soon as I get started, I know if it’s a novel or not. But story collections are “larger projects” as well. Often my stories align thematically with my other stories but I don’t realize quite how connected they are until I’m done writing. So in that case, I may not be working on a “book from the very beginning” at all, but rather short pieces that do end up combining into larger projects.   

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Definitely part of. It’s so rewarding to hear something being reacted to in real time, to see if jokes land, if people are digging it. I really feed off that energy.

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?
Of course. It varies so much based on the project. For this particular novel, The Eggplant Curse and the Warp Zone, I was initially interrogating fandom and communities, millennial angst, and the conflicts and implications of regional identity. But a lot of my current work, especially my short fiction, examines intergenerational Holocaust memory.

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?
Writers have always had a great responsibility and that is even more true now. The writer documents. The writer brings the world to the reader. By simply holding a mirror up to society, writers can help readers understand, which is also why it’s important we amplify voices from marginalized communities, which also happens to be where some of the best work today is being written. Of course writing can be fun and be purely for entertainment and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with work like that, but writing can also do so much more. Writing can bring about change.   

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Essential. The critical, objective eye a good editor brings is everything.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
As I was working on my dissertation, my adviser often shared variations of Nike’s Just Do It. As in, just get it written. Just get it done. Just do the work. Sometimes it’s exactly what a writer needs to hear. Enough talking about it, just do it.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to short stories to the novel to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
While I don’t think that moving between genres is easy, I do think that a good fiction writer has a lot to gain from writing poetry, from thinking about the integrity of the word, the line, and vice versa. It can really change your work.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I do most of my writing in the morning, at my desk, with a view of the sun from my office window. Other than that, there isn’t a typical day for me.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I like to remind myself that writer’s block is a myth. If you write yourself into a wall, you can write yourself out of it. But sometimes you’re out of juice for the day and when that happens, I go for a walk, I take a drive, I put a show on. I do something else. Often I’ll enter revision mode and read over what I already have written (this also serves as a gentle reminder to use my inventory when I need help moving forward), but sometimes the writing is done for the day and that’s okay too.  

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Salt. Seaweed. Sunscreen. The Atlantic meeting the south shore of Long Island.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I’m very influenced by music. The right song helps to put me in the right headspace. But I also take influence from film, travel, and art. My debut novel, of course, was influenced by retro video games and is filled with references (some overt and some implicit) that reflects that.

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

Too many to list here. I would argue that almost every book I’ve read has influenced my work in some way, even if that influence was minor.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I like to travel, so I’d love to visit every country. I have a long way to go, but I also have a lot of life left to live.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I come from a family of accountants (literally: father, both brothers, uncles, cousins), so dare I say it...

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
See answer to previous question. But also, I wanted to engage with people. To explore. It wasn’t that I felt like I had something to say. It was just that I needed to write. I read books so often as a kid that writing was something I started to do without a second thought. I know that even if I step away from it for a bit, the pull of the work will draw me back.

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

The last great book I read was Claudia Rankine’s Just Us. The last great film I watched (re-watched, really) was Come and See, a Soviet masterpiece loosely based on the Khatyn massacre in Belarus. It’s one of the toughest films I’ve ever seen, but it’s brilliant.  

20 - What are you currently working on?

I just put the finishing touches on my story collection, which is very exciting and I’m getting started on a second novel, which is tonally and thematically different from The Eggplant Curse and the Warp Zone. Speaking of, I’ll end this with a shameless plug: The Eggplant Curse and the Warp Zone is out now. Give is a shot. Support authors. Support indie presses.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Thursday, December 02, 2021

John Yau, Genghis Chan on Drums


O Pin Yin Sonnet (15)

We’re not talking about Asians; we’re talking about China
It is smart business to name a restaurant chain after a cuddly bear
Who happens to be a vegetarian, but it is another thing

To go big-game hunting in the African savanna
I would just as soon turn a panda into a huggy coat or hat.

Importing kudu horns or making a zebra into a rug—
This is real and different. For one thing, it’s permanent,

Not just a bowl of green weeds and brown meat scrape
Gobbled, wolved, or slurped up or jammed down with sticks

Standing beside a dead giraffe that you shot on a hot day
Proves something about the depth of your character

I respect a man or woman that displays big-game trophies
We had Teddy Roosevelt, his Big Stick policy and Rough Riders

What does China have: old men with canes and fallen zippers

It is impossible not to delight in the near two hundred pages of American poet John Yau’s latest, Genghis Chan on Drums (Oakland CA: Omnidawn, 2021), a book that follows nearly a dozen poetry collections across more than forty years, as well as numerous chapbooks, works of fiction, criticism, collaborations and monographs. This is the first of his titles I’ve gone through, and I’m immediately struck by the clarity of the direct statements in his poems, especially the ways in which Yau returns years’ worth of racist comments, microaggressions and injustices back in the most powerful ways possible. The poem “On Being Told that I Don’t Look and Act Chinese,” opens: “I am deeply grateful for your good opinion / I am honestly indignant / I am, I confess, a little discouraged / I am inclined to agree with you / I am incredulous / I am in a chastened mood / I am far more grieved than I can tell you / I am naturally overjoyed [.]” There is a confidence and a strength here, one he knows when and how to play, push or hold back, from a poet who clearly knows exactly what it is he’s doing, and what tools he’s working with.

Structured via nine sections of poems, plus a prose poem in prologue, and two poems in epilogue, Yau appears to be engaged in multiple conversations, including a section of poems in which he responds to the previous administration, including the former American President, responding to history and culture as it occurs. “There are no words to express / the horrible hour that happened,” he writes, to open “The President’s Third Telegram,” “Journalists, like all fear, should be / attacked while doing their jobs [.]” Weaving in elements of culture and current events, much of which touch upon larger issues of fearmongering and racist dog-whistles, Yau’s is a very human and considered lyric sense of fairness and justice, composing poems that push back against dangerous rhetoric, outdated or deliberately obscured language and racist ideas and ideologies. In his own way, Yau works to counter the ways in which language is weaponized against marginalized groups, attempting to renew human consideration by showcasing how inhuman and destructive language has become. “We regret that we are unable to correct the matter of your disappointment,” he writes, as part of “Choose Two of the Following,” “We quaff mugs of delight while recounting the details of your latest inconvenience [.]”

Structurally, Yau appears to favour the extended suite: individual self-contained poems each sharing a title, although numbered in sequence, from the nineteen numbered “O Pin Yin Sonnet” poems, the eight “The Philosopher” poems to five “A Painter’s Thoughts,” each grouped together at different points in the collection. Given his lengthy publishing history, it would make sense that there are elements of this collection that extend further what he’s worked through previously, and there are points at which poems included here very much do feel an extension of a conversation I might not have encountered at the beginning. The most obvious suggestions of Yau working an ongoing series of conversations being, of course, how the nineteen “O Pin Yin Sonnets” begin their numbering at “10,” or how poet Monica Youn infers in her back cover blurb that the character/”alter-ego” Genghis Chan is one that Yau has utilized previously. Throughout, Yau engages in multiple and ongoing conversations, it would seem, from culture to politics to other writers, such as the first of the paired epilogue poems, “Nursery Song,” subtitled “(After Sean Bonney),” paying tribute to both the late British poet and activist, as well as engaging with some of Bonney’s own ongoing concerns. As the poem begins:

Don’t say “pandemic lockdown”
Say Fuck the rich/their private island getaways
Say Fuck their Aspen lodges/stocked with climate-controlled volcanoes

and children named after weather stations and rare cheeses

Don’t say “clubbed and beaten”
Say Fuck clubbing and slumming
Say Fuck following and liking

Don’t say “assortment of pretty much everything you can imagine,
at a loss for words, beyond your wildest dreams”
Don’t say “quartz countertops, home theater, private cul-de-sac, second getaway”

Say Fuck the rich, their carbon footprint, their dinosaur ways