Sunday, May 28, 2017

C.D. Wright, ShallCross

Imaginary August

If one stood perfectly still. Even in the withering hours

of then. Hair down to here. Being alive and quiet.

One could forget oneself. Forget what one didn’t even recognize.

How mad it felt. Subliminally. One could pick out goldfinches

and mourning cloaks among the dying stalks of cosmos,

and across the ditch of grey wastewater they use to irrigate

the burial ground, a young man in a late-flowering tree

taking our photograph.

The most recent collection by the late American poet C.D. Wright (1949-2016) is ShallCross (Port Townsend WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2017), a book she finished editing just before her unexpected death, early last year. With such a book comes an enormous amount of mixed feelings: delight at the possibility of another volume by a beloved poet, and the reminder of just what it is we have lost. The strengths of this collection include what have always stood out in her work: the ability to articulate the most intimate of moments, recording and acknowledging deeply personal stories of human grief and suffering, and turning expectation and language around in the simplest ways, including details such as capturing how “a piano is being moved / by someone not listening / to the rain from one end / of the room to another” (“Poem with a Missing Pilot”) to “A study concluded, for a park / to be successful there had to be a woman. / The man next to the monument must have broken / away from her. Perhaps years / before.” (“Obscurity and Elegance”) to the openings of “Imaginary Suitcase,” that writes: “This belonged to your mother. Now / it is yours though you have no memory / of her and we’ll never know if she wrote it / by herself or copied it down from a book.” The poems and sections of the collection exist in a collage of what Wright did best in her work: allowing her empathy and attention to articulate the heart of what is so often overlooked or taken for granted, writing a series of poems for all the senses, writing: “Whether or not the water was freezing. The body / would break its sheath. Without layer on layer / of feather and air to insulate the loving belly.” (“Imagining Morning Glory”).

The longer poem, “Breathtaken,” extends the elegiac nature of her previous works with the photographer Deborah Luster, “as a corollary to” her Tooth for an Eye: A Chorography of Violence in Orleans Parish.” Through this sequence, as with her previous collaboration with Luster, One Big Self, Wright articulates a series of acknowledgments, recording those who have lost and have been lost through homicide, writing: “[Fabulous, that was her byword] // inside a black Toyota Scion // inside her ransacked house // inside Happy Jack Social and Pleasure Club // lying on the street [.]” Writing out a sequence less one about giving voice than allowing voice, allowing for a particular level of questions and an open grief:

What was your loved one’s best physical feature
Could you draw that feature blind
Did your loved one have a sweet tooth
What was your loved one’s prized possession
Did you keep a piece of your loved one’s clothing
Was your loved one a day person or a night person
Was your loved one a good mimic
Was your loved one a good loser

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Ploughshares : an interview with Robin Richardson on Minola Review

I'm a monthly blogger over at the Ploughshares blog! And my eleventh post is now up: an interview with founder/editor Robin Richardson on Minola Review: a journal of women's writing.

You can see links to all of my Ploughshares posts here, including interviews with Toronto poet Emily Izsak, Ottawa poet Faizal Deen, Parliamentary Poet Laureate George Elliott Clarke, editor/critic Erin Wunker, Arc Poetry Magazine Poetry Editor Rhonda Douglas, editor/publisher Leigh Nash on Invisible Publishing, Cobourg, Ontario poet, editor, fiction writer and small press publisher Stuart Ross, Toronto novelist Ken Sparling, Kingston writer Diane Schoemperlen and Toronto poet Soraya Peerbaye.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Kate Cayley, Other Houses

A Partial List of People Who Have Claimed to be Christ
Ann Lee, 1736-1784

I will not sit in your presence, persecutors. Bare-headed
before you I stand examined, men of English church, men of
holy cloth, but I was a seamstress, snipping lives in my fingers.

I could rip a seam like the ocean, which I aim to cross, leading
my women and men, who sweat alike and walk together, for only
by the sameness of men and women shall either be redeemed.

When I shudder, you will say the fit is on me, and mock me,
but I say you are filth, to see filth. I shake with the Word, myself
Mother Ann, female form of Christ. My babies dead, my womb

blasted, God knew I was for other offers. Not for me
the spindle, the bed. Shake your heads, churchmen. I see
you titter as the rabble does. Do not touch me. I will burn

your hands with holiness. Ask me any point of theology
and I will answer you in tongues. Cut mine out, I will speak.
I will inherit. I will turn the world upside down.

I am intrigued by the narrative precision of Kate Cayley’s lyrics in her second collection, Other Houses (London ON: Brick Books, 2017). I was initially struck by a series of poems that thread through, each titled “A Partial List of People Who Have Claimed to be Christ.” Four poems in all, each poem writes a kind of case history on different historical figures who claimed, in their own way, some version of the divine: Ann Lee (1736-1784), Arnold Potter (1804-1872), William W. Davies (1833-1906) and Laszlo Toth (1938-2012). There is something quite sympathetic in her sketches-as-case-histories, blending elements of irrationality with their own relationships and awareness of the divine, as she writes in the William W. Davies piece, “Everything comes // again, and what is, was.” Cayley’s lines are incredibly precise, pointed and sharp, carving metaphysical queries into character studies, and short sketches that encapsulate the entirety of human history. Utilizing historical research and figures, Cayley’s short narratives write out an exploration of fissures, breaks and even collisions between mythologies and reality, searching throughout the past few centuries for examples of those who broke through to the other side, or were broken in their attempts, and even, occasionally, both. As she writes in the poem “Hans Christian Anderson Becomes Acquainted with / His Shadow”: “There must be a light / somewhere.”

Item 368444, Category 4, 1877


This map is unfinished.

There are no people on the map. Maps are adept at inferring that the people who inhabit a land matter less than the map itself, and so the map aids in the project of disappearance.

It is not known how this map is connected to the disappearance of a specific person, but as the map must have had an owner, we may assume a missing person (or missing people) that the map does not indicate.

There are tooth marks in the map, which may have come from an animal, or, possibly, indicate the cartographer’s foolish wish to eat the world. The attempt was unsuccessful. (“The Library of the Missing”)

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Ottawa (BookThug) Launch for Christine McNair, Erin Robinsong + Jennifer Still

BookThug invites you to celebrate the launch of 3 new books of poetry: Charm by Christine McNair, Comma by Jennifer Still and Rag Cosmology by Erin Robinsong!

Saturday, June 10th
Montgomery Centretown Legion, Lower Hall
330 Kent St., Ottawa, ON
Hosted by Brecken Hancock.

Free and all are welcome. Cash bar.
Books will be available for sale.
All washrooms and hallways in the legion are fully accessible. We regret that there are two steps down into the lower hall.

Charm, the second collection by poet Christine McNair, considers the craftwork of conception from a variety of viewpoints—from pregnancy and motherhood, to how an orchid is pollinated, to overcoming abusive relationships, to the manual artistry of carving a violin bow or marbling endpapers. Through these works, McNair’s poetic line evolves as if moving in a spellbound kaleidoscope, etched with omens, fairytales, intimacy’s stickiness, and the mothering body.

The ecological is personal; the personal is ecological. Rag Cosmology by Erin Robinsong is a pulsating meditation on this most intimate relationship. These poems inject pleasure deep into the tissues of our language and state, countering fatalist narratives with the intimacy of entanglement and engagement.

Between 2008 and 2014, while her brother was in a lengthy coma, award-winning poet Jennifer Still engaged in a private collaboration with the art and wonder that was his handwritten field guide of prairie grasses. The result: the stunning works of poetry and imagery encapsulated in Comma. Still was moved by an overarching impulse of grief to create these poems. In the brittle lexicon of botany, and in the hum of the machines keeping her brother alive, she developed a hands-on method of composition that plays with the possibilities of what can be ‘read’ on a page. Comma enacts a state of transformation and flux, all in an effort to portray the embodiment of grief and regeneration that can be achieved in the physical breakdown and reassembly of lyric poetic forms.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Bernadette Mayer, Works & Days

April 26

I’m reading a book by Margaret Atwood called Blind Assassin because I was looking for the phrase “blonde assassin” from an Emily Dickinson poem in which it’s a bee and I happened upon this book at the library. It’s a Downton Abbey-type tale that takes place in Canada, Port Ticonderoga. The rich man is a manufacturer of buttons. Among the rich men I’ve men one made bobby pins, one shower-curtain holders, and one cassette-tape containers. Another Velcro.

snomal  slebs  socru  deeibs  sbieed  mayrac  caryem

todub  budot  clawr  rwalc  turopo  urpot  oporut

The first collection of American poet Bernadette Mayer I’ve really spent proper time with is her Works & Days (New York NY: New Directions, 2016). The author of dozens of titles over the past five decades, she’s now seven with New Directions, including The Bernadette Mayer Reader, The Helens of Troy, NY and Poetry State Forest. The poems in Works & Days alternate between more traditional lyrics and short sketches, most of which are situated via a sequence of title-dates. Meyer’s titles exist as openings toward what occurs throughout the poem, expanding and furthering upon that initial invitation to explore, whether “May 1,” “I Am a Coyote” or “James Schuyler’s Road Show,” that ends:

                                    […] you can’t figure out who all
the people in your dreams are
                                                            everybody drinking
coffee had their own pot, I say I’d like a little
coffee in a big cup but I just get sips of other
             Lewis has to listen very patiently
To what Anne is saying
                                      I dream I bring back
From the dream some iced sprite from the kiosk
In front of every elevator door in Peggy’s
Ancestral building
                              Turns out we’re at 88th and DeMott
We pass a sign: Soon there’ll be a junk shop here,
I explain that like those liquidation signs, it’s
not necessarily true, I buy a knitted shirt that
says: Look Up At The Sky around the collar –
who should it be for?

Subtitled “Spring Journal,” she dates the pieces in Works & Days from “March 20 to June 21,” setting the entire collection up as a day book, and one might presume that her intentions are to believed, composing the entire collection during that specific three month period. How does Mayer spend this particular spring? Writing lists, observations, sketches and responses, including responses to her reading, walks, particular dates on the calendar, dreams, reminiscences, travel and the weather. And yet, her short narrative pieces are hardly straightforward, offering commentary and observations that have come from decades of writing and attention, such as in the poem “May 2,” that includes: “The one thing Aristotle was / right about was metaphors. C’mere all you similes, don’t go too far! And / don’t forget to floss! Like Bernadette Mayer, she was an anarchist but / not the bomb-throwing sort. Grackles are Donald Trumps.”

Alice’s Driveway Is a Tree

I turn on the light at think
The outside gloom will go away
Everything doesn’t
Nor does nothing
It’s a dark room in a dark world
But right before sunset
We’ll see some rays

Along with the courted sun
Goes my astonishment
My love of this same old view
But who cares if I can go
To ancient restaurants in New Orleans

I guess it’ll come back
But don’t count on it
One two three o’clock
Four o’clock rock

There’s an intriguing kind of openness to Meyer’s work, one that seems to emerge from both an intellectual and formal restlessness, madly moving and searching into every direction, even as she attempts to remain stock-still. It’s something she hints of in an interview conducted in 1998 by Lisa Jarnot for the Poetry Project Newsletter (included in the recent anthology WHAT IS POETRY? (JUST KIDDING, I KNOW YOU KNOW), INTERVIEWS FROM THE POETRY PROJECT NEWSLETTER (1983 – 2009) [see my review of such here]):

LJ: What did you think of Language writing?
BM: Well, I encouraged it. I never thought it would reach these proportions. I always thought it was a great idea. I’m for all kinds of writing. I never knew Language poetry would become so exclusive. I mean Language poetry is fine, but it’s one kind of poetry. Someone said to a friend of mine recently, “Your book is filled with all different kinds of poetry.” I mean, why not? Are you supposed to write only one kind of poetry? I don’t think so. I love Louis Zukofsky’s translations of Catullus, which are not translations, they’re just mimicking the sound of the Latin, and they’re beautiful, they’re great. What Americans really seem to find difficult is when something doesn’t make sense. They find it really hard and boring, what’s it all about? It seems like you can just enjoy the sounds of words without any other meaning rearing its ugly head. Why bother. Who cares? It’s just that people watch TV and they’re made to think that things are very simple and clear, because that’s the way they are on TV and everyone thinks that everything should be that way.

Monday, May 22, 2017

12 or 20 questions with Keegan Lester

Keegan Lester [photo credit: Christopher Jackson] is an American writer. He's been featured on NPR, CBS New York Radio, Marshall University Radio, Chapman University Radio Coldfront and The New School Writing Blog among other podcasts and blogs. His work has been published in The Boston Review, The Adroit, Boaat Journal, CutBank, Sixth Finch and Phantom Limb among others. He earned his MFA from Columbia University.  His first collection of poetry won The Slope Editions Book Prize judged by Mary Ruefle and is available for purchase at

1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
"Change" might be a little bit of a strong word, but I think the book has been a vehicle needed for the outside world to give this writing thing I’ve been doing for a while, some credence.  I wrote another collection of poetry that is still in the process of finding a home and recently I read some of those poems to my partner and she said “These are so freaking sad”. I think my earlier work hinged on heavy doses of sadness with moments of humor, whereas the work in the book seems to be more level, more thankful and at times even joyous. The poems I’m working on now are different from those categories, but I’m not sure I’ve had enough time yet to process the how yet.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I used to write letters to my grandmother when I was younger, and sometimes those letters would have poems in them. She still has my first poem hanging on her wall from when I was about seven.  As I grew I was both very against but drawn to the poetry I read in school, most of which was institutionalized garbage. I knew poetry was more than finding a symbol or explaining what a metaphor is. At some point I began to write songs and it wasn't until I was in college, in a non-fiction class listening to a Nikki Giovanni poem “Quilting the Black Eyed Pea (We’re going to Mars)”, where I understood that this other kind of poetry existed. I knew listening to that poem that this was I wanted to do. It was a moment where I didn't realize poetry could be that way, which keeps happening. I think what I love most about poetry is the discovery that when I think I’ve figured it out as a form, I come across something where I say to myself, “I didn’t realize you could do that!” 

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 depends on the poem.  I’ve written poems in 15 minutes, that have been published in big journals,  but there are also poems I’ve worked on for years. I had to learn in my revision process how to not revise the poem out of the poem.  How to sit on work and give it time for me to process what it really is.  My book is mostly comprised of my earlier writing, much of which I thought I’d thrown away. I recently discovered a magic flash drive with all of the work I'd compiled from undergrad and grad school. I came to it now with fresh eyes and was able to objectively see what was wrong with it. Much of the work sat untouched for five years. I’ve figured out how to edit my own intelligence out of my earlier work, to allow the poems to have their own unique intelligence.  I think my younger self had a need to prove my own ability and intelligence, and that often got in the way of the poem. Much of this book took ten years to complete. 

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Most of my poems start at the lyric and sonic level. They start with a line or a rhythm or cadence, or a strange piece of language that strikes me. I write out of that. I’ve never given much thought to the need to write a specific poem to fit in a specific book, until recently, which is my latest project. This project’s parameters are both monster and muse.  

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love reading and tour as much as I can. I probably sell most of my books by reading in front of people. It’s the best platform I have for selling poetry and establishing my personal brand.

In many ways, what literary poetry has done would be equivalent to having musicians work their entire life on an album, and then say it doesn't matter how you play it in front of people, because they will get the idea from listening if they buy the album, and I'm very much against that. I’ve always been drawn to the bands and the musicians and the poets that made me feel something live. The heart of my work comes from that fire. From wanting to convince you, through performance. 

While I don’t write specifically for readings, I know how to make a set list. I’m aware of which of my poems are funny, and which poems don’t work in front of people. I prefer reading in bars and music venues. I’ll likely come to your city if you ask me to. 

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?
Every poem written has a theoretical concern. I believe it’s less my job to push my own agenda, which I’m definitely guilty of from time to time, but try to work more to be the space where people are allowed to consider their own theoretical concerns by getting closer to the feelings they themselves are trying to articulate.  

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?

The idea of the writer is such a large and abstract concept. In this day and age, with social media and blogs and tumblrs, everyone is a writer. One problem with literary poets is the distance they try to keep between the 100,000 or us and the 318 ish million other Americans. I struggle to get behind writers whose work’s intelligence stems from a place of self gratification as a means to distance themselves from their audience. My place as a writer is much closer to an entertainer or the person that wants to help people come to poetry, not turn them away.  I want to be the poet that encourages others to write rather than make the argument that there are a finite number of poets living and that only special people get to make art. I believe art and writing is for everyone and that no single kind of intelligence should be valued over another.  In my opinion, writers should be observers, people working to build platforms for others, not acting as gatekeepers. 

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I don’t trust very many people with my writing.  I have a couple secret readers and they aren’t poets.  Both are brilliant and I trust them, because they have nothing to gain or lose based on what they say and they know that.  At the end of the day I have to move non-poets and strangers, and they tend to be the most honest about whether something works or not.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Two things from the photographer Thomas Roma:
"In art, you don’t get to learn something- you get to feel something. That’s why we listen to music. We don’t listen to music to learn that there are people in the world that don’t know who their daddy is. We already know that. But when Freddy Cole sings ‘I Wonder Who My Daddy Is’, you get to feel it. You get to feel what he feels."
"Don’t default to your intelligence. Your intelligence will let you down. It makes you overthink things. But feel- you can never overfeel things."
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I used to be disciplined.  I’ve fallen off that wagon recently with touring and promoting this book. 

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

People. Strangers mostly.  I walk around town and eavesdrop on strangers.  

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
The smell of my mother’s pork chops stewing in a crockpot is the smell I think of when I think of home. 

13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
For me it’s mostly music and film. I’m interested in cadence, music and movement. Films that have had a major impact on my work include: The Fall, Beasts of the Southern Wild, The House of Yes, Many in the 30 for 30 Series, Beginners, Rushmore, It Follows, Stoker, Miracle at St. Anna & I’m Not there, among others.

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

Nikki Giovanni, Scott McClanahan, Rita Dove, Richard Siken, Mary Ruefle, Jason Bredle, Emily O’Neill, Bianca Stone, Li-Young Lee, James Baldwin, Eduardo Corral, Ilya Kaminsky, Timothy Donnelly, Camille Rankine, Jericho Brown, Scott Fitzgerald, Natasha Trethewey, Kevin Chesser, David F Bello, Joshua Bennett and Marilynne Robinson

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Put out an album of music or make a film.

16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I’d like to make films.

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

It was the only thing I knew how to do competently.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I read Crapalachia by Scott McClanahan, a couple years ago  and it shook me to my core. I went out and bought and read everything he’d ever written later that week. Joe Halstead also had a great book come out recently called West Virginia.  I also really love the book Gilead by Marilynne Robinson & Man Alive by Thomas Page McBee. The Witch, Moonlight, The 13th, Hell or High Water, It Follows, The Lobster, City of Gold  & Manchester by the Sea were some of my recent favorite films.

19 - What are you currently working on?
A collection of Non-fiction called “It Is Thought that Dinosaurs Once Cooed Like Doves”  and a collection of poems, mostly about California, for my mother.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;