Friday, April 28, 2017

12 or 20 (second series) questions with D.S. Stymiest

D.S. Stymeist’s debut collection, The Bone Weir, has just been released by Frontenac House. His poems have appeared in numerous magazines, including The Antigonish Review, Prairie Fire, Dalhousie Review, and The Fiddlehead. His work was featured as the Parliamentary Poet Laureate’s Poem of the Month (February 2015) and was short-listed for Vallum’s poetry prize. He teaches poetics, crime fiction, and aboriginal literature at Carleton University. He grew up as a resident of O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation, is the editor and founder of the micro-press, Textualis, and is the current vice-president of VERSe Ottawa, which runs VerseFest, Ottawa’s annual poetry festival.

1 - How did you come to poetry, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Strangely enough, what began the process of writing poetry was putting my daughter to bed when she was a baby. Until she went into deeper sleep, I had to stay up with her, and she would fall asleep right on my chest. For long periods of time, I couldn’t move, or get up. This situation of having to be physically still led me to start playing with lines in my head. Considering the constraints of the situation, I couldn’t work with longer forms. Later in the evening, I’d try to jot these lines, sound sequences, or phrases down.

A few days later, I might play around with what I’d written until a poem fell out. So I guess I owe a lot to my daughter. She’s a peach.

About the same time, I heard Robert Pinsky read at the Ottawa Public Library as part of the Writer’s Festival. I’d always loved his work, but what really grabbed me was how after the reading he talked about how he grew up in small town New Jersey without being really aware that there were people who wrote poetry for a living. He liked to doodle with words, play around with them, rearrange lines and syntax just for the sheer pleasure of it. For me this idea of doodling with words was really important. I’d written poetry in my late teens, but as I became more aware of poetic traditions and the strictures of form I became more intimidated by it. Pinsky’s ideas about doodling with language helped to deflate some of that intimidation.

2 - Do you have any concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work?
Among my many, many other concerns, I have a strong interest in revisiting indigenous legend to reimagine our national landscape. These sacred stories and traditions have a lot to teach Canadians, all of us.

I grew up on a Cree reservation in Northern Manitoba in a household of mixed heritage. My stepfather was Cree, my mother is Northern European, and my younger siblings are metis. While there is some Choctaw blood in me (a few generations back), I’m mainly a white guy that grew up as a part of an indigenous community. Living in the Northern bush, and living off that land has given me some insight into the importance of having sacred stories that write the genesis of geologic forms and landscape. These stories are significant to my sense of self and place, and part of my role as a writer is to share this sense of significance.

In many other parts of the world, the land is tied directly to particular legends and myths. There are many indigenous stories that write the origins of local topographies, but these stories are either generally not very well known or have lost their resonant significance for most Canadians. Even among many first nations communities, there has been a tremendous loss of tribal knowledge due to religious conversion and the residential school system. There is a growing hunger and need for these stories.

There are many great Canadian writers like Gregory Scofield, Armand Garnet Ruffo, Thompson Highway, and Thomas King who write from perspective of re-purposing and adapting traditional legend for contemporary meaning. The mixing of cultures and traditions can be a potential strength of our country, something that defines us as a nation, but this can happen only if our culture as a whole starts acknowledging, valuing, and utilizing indigenous knowledges.

3 - Where does a poem usually begin for you?
It may sound utterly banal, but a poem begins with some subject, idea, or experience that I’m passionate about. For example, one of my abiding interests is the complex interconnections between animals and plants in specific environments. Animals don’t simply evolve—they co-evolve with other species.

When I found out that the pronghorn antelope, one of our iconic prairie animals, co-evolved with the American cheetah, I was taken with the idea that we live in an age of ecological ghosts.

Everywhere we look in modern habitats there are species that no longer exist but their biologic effect is still present in the bodies of other plants and animals.

After writing an elegiac ode to the American Cheetah, I subsequently wrote one about the Avocado, a central American fruit that you can find in any grocery, but one with an interesting biological history. As the avocado’s natural partners in its seed dispersal died out about 10,000 years ago, it has become largely dependent on human cultivation for continued survival.

While we are currently experiencing one of great extinction events in our planet’s history, from the very inception of humanity as a distinct species, we’ve been implicated in the extinctions of many species—Mastodons, Mammoths, Giant Sloths, etc, etc. This is the inheritance of the Anthropocene.

Some of my poems attempt to grapple with this legacy. Part of that elegiac process is bearing witness to the impact of our presence, our activities. Another part is to celebrate and pay homage to ecological ghosts.

4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Yes, if anyone has seen me read, I think it is readily apparent that it is something I enjoy. Public performances are essential to the task of my writing—the expectation that the written has to become oral shapes how the poems are composed.

I’m not a fan of opposing the term “page poet” to the “spoken word poet.” We are all poets, and the genetic origins of poetry ultimately lie in orality. That historical link to oral culture has a huge influence on how I go about constructing and reciting a poem

Homer was not writing for the page when he composed his versions of the Odyssey or the Iliad. The Nordic Scops who belted out early versions of Beowulf or the Sagas for their fellow tribe-members were not writing for the page. In a communal, aural environment, narrative meaning, rhythm, and sound become essential.

While I have great respect for concrete and visual poets, I write primarily for a public, oral audience. It’s always a privilege to get to share the work, shout out the words, while I still have voice.

5 - 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 subject and mode of a particular poem. Some poems, often the more lyrical or personal ones, often come quickly. Even a six page rant like the “401 Series” only took a couple of frenzied hours to jot down a first draft.

Other poems, like the ones that revisit forgotten moments of colonial history or excavate ice-age extinctions often take months of research before I come to actually sit down and write.

6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
At times it can be difficult, but it is definitely essential. I rely on editors noting when I’ve completely gone off the rails. I thank them for their work.

7 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Definitely what Robert Pinsky said about poetry as doodling with words.

Also, I say to myself: “there is no absolute need to write; write only when it feels necessary.”

8 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)?
It hasn’t been all that easy to move between different forms of writing.

In order to be successful, even in a limited way, at grad school and then as an academic, I found that I had to crush most of my creative impulses. To write critical work that would be publishable in peer-reviewed journals not only demanded all of my energy and time, it demanded that my thinking be rigorously analytic.

Over time, I believe that my mind became habituated to particular ways of thinking. When I began to write creatively, it was difficult to avoid some of the habits of the academic mind. The last few years have been about strengthening atrophied creative neural pathways. It has become easier and easier to write poetry and creative prose, but this transformation was certainly not without its pain.

9 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one?
I only find time to write when all my other responsibilities have been taken care of. I like to find blocks of undistracted time, but this can be very, very difficult. Moreover, I don’t write to a program or a schedule. If there isn’t something that is urging me to get it down on paper, I will not write.  

10 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn, or return, to for inspiration?
I place no pressure on myself to write. To “stall” implies that there is an abstract desire to write something of import. If you have something to say, then say it. If not, then be silent.

If I have a spot of time to write, but find myself listless or under-motivated, then I will read, or revise older work (or have sex, or go for a hike, or bake some cookies—there is always something good to do with your time).

11 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I like the way that some people have a sense of home. I’m not sure I do.

12 - 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?
Pop music. The lyrical sister-art of poetry. Speech, inflection, rhythm.

Arcade Fire, Talking Heads, Serge Gainsbourg, Gorilaz, Massive Attack, Neil Young, Johnny Cash, Guided by Voices, Daft Punk, Iggy Pop, Pixies, Sigur Ros, Charles Mingus, etc, etc, etc.

13 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
This is an overwhelming question. I’ve been thinking lately of Yusef Komunyakaa’s object poems. I’ve been drawn to the genre of the object poem in my own work (“The Levelois Point” for example). I like how meditation on a material object can provide a welcome relief from the confessional self as it is posed through the lyric form. 

Komunyakaa’s object work on artifacts, such as “The Helmet” and “The Catapult,” is astounding—so precise, chiseled even. The paradox, of course, is how much these object poems reveal about humanity. 

14 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Write a good novel.

15 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be?
My health now precludes the attempt, but if I could, I might have been an archeologist, or paleontologist. Something to do with uncovering the buried, I think.

Remember that career test that we took in high school, the “Strong Interest Inventory”? I remember that my closest match was Female Army officer. Perhaps there’s still time…

16 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I’m reading Paisley Rekdal’s Imaginary Vessels. Some of the poems make me sick with envy.

We live in the golden age of the independent mini-series. I’m watching Fargo right now, to my great delight.

17 - What are you currently working on?
Poking at a few poems. Hopefully, in a year or two, a collection will drop out. We’ll see.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Sarah Pinder, Common Place

Tumbling behind pleasure
on our best behavior,
holding its hands.

The sweeter version:
hollow, ropey, and roaring,
in redux with the truest reds.

Step by step, man in a blue suit,
man with a baby, man kneading the grass,
carrying some matte black apparatus.

Digging the trough for a headstone,
a fleshy neutrality of debt, lymph-tinted.

You can’t pay back flicker –
we’re in a marked space, using
our bottle caps to place
three-minute video calls home.

For her second trade poetry collection, Common Place (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2017), Toronto writer Sarah Pinder shifts her short, dense lyric meditations into the structure of a single, book-length poem. She writes: “We are trying to keep the moment / when the worst seems to have / not happened.”

In Common Place, Pinder writes a suite of seemingly self-contained fragments into a slow, meditative monologue blending self and landscape, the private and the public, as disparate threads that sometimes connect, separate, overlap and even blend. It is intriguing to see a poet long known for her explorations in brevity and the small moment attempt to extend the canvas upon which she writes, allowing every word and line to be part of a single unit, and the resulting book provides a slippery single-portrait, one that shimmers and distorts even as it begins to come into view. What is this book working towards, or doing? I admire the ambition of such a project, and the fragments exist less as a linear suite than an accumulation, and one that doesn’t require every connection to connect to achieve, writing layer upon layer upon layer. Shifting voice, tone and location, perhaps the closest to a description that might encapsulate the entire project comes from the mid-section of the collection, as she writes: “I wore so many layers when we met / and drank doubles, which destines me to say CAPITALISM / again and again like a more diligent newspaper Marxist, / but I did it anyway, pulled the glow on us.”

Before it had been absent, it was a task,
water ready to empty.

I was absent in the tension
throughout my body.

I didn’t discuss it.

When I got to Chicago,
I kept splitting into quarters,
then eighths.

Fingering waistbands,
bag checked and a playing card
slipped in my back pocket.

Five of diamonds
laminated with packing tape.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

m a n y _ g e n d e r e d _ m o t h e r s : f o u r _ r e c e n t _ e s s a y s

many gendered mothers is a project on literary influence featuring short essays by writers (of any/all genders) on the women, femme, trans, and non-binary writers who have influenced them, as a direct or indirect literary forebear.

This project is directly inspired by the American website Literary Mothers, created by editor Nadxieli Nieto and managing editor Nina Puro. While we hope that Literary Mothers might eventually return to posting new pieces, our site was created as an extension and furthering of their project (in homage, if you will), and not meant as any kind of replacement.

We've now sixteen essays posted! Our most recent include:
Doyali Islam on Sylvia Legris

Adrienne Gruber on Brecken Hancock

Ian Whistle on Judith Copithorne

Evelyn Deshane on Wendy C. Ortiz
Please check out our submissions page for more information.

Forthcoming essays include: Dorothy Palmer on Stella Young, Theresa Smalec on Aritha van Herk, Dawn Promislow on Nadine Gordimer, A.H. Reaume on Virginia Woolf and Terry Abrahams on Anne Carson.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Leanne Dunic, To love the coming end

On top of sweaty sheets, I exist without basic order. Order of eating. Of hydration. Of relieving myself of concentrated urine. Buddha says: Existence is suffering. Desire is suffering. To be awake with one’s anxieties is suffering. If I can sleep, then I can survive, but there’s something I desire, something that, in my rest-deprived state, seems attainable. Reunion. Perhaps through dreams? But then there would have to be sleep. Without worry, without unnamed guilt.

Reality is unreality. I have no references to validate my existence. Mornings at nights I pray to other gods, talk to you, think of new superstitions.

5 am, I wake. Hello?

The first published book by Vancouver multidisciplinary artist Leanne Dunic is the poetry title To love the coming end (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2017), a book-length suite of lyric meditations composed as a series of self-contained fragments. While this appears to be a sketchbook composed during foreign travel, this is less a book about travel than one that, through the experience of travel, allows for the removal of the distractions of home, forcing the narrator into an examination of self after “the loss of a loved one.” As she writes: “Even while in Japan, my missing doesn’t thin. Maples and pines root my muscle, call me back to land.” Dunic writes the self-doubt, recriminations, observations and pessimisms that are often associated with loss, writing:

Within me, a gaping crevice. The more I change my environment the more I lose track of myself, yet I traverse. Maybe that’s the point. Nothing is anchored. Today is unstable, easy for people and land to split. Minerals grind a geological dance, the balance of the earth’s axis shifts. Chile, Indonesia, New Zealand, Haiti, Japan. Where next? The unsure crust hectors the Pacific Northwest, evidence of instability buried under substrate. A story, mounds.

Dunic writes of impending natural disasters and impending destruction, questioning how one can continue on such a precipice: “Singapore grows, a city of glass, as if there is no threat of plates and quakes.” To love the coming end is a book about isolation, vulnerability and perspective. She writes on Mishima and travel, Singapore and her “next project,” attempting to find ground even as she deems herself perpetually unsettled. She writes:

I hate November. Especially in Singapore. I’ve given up on aging, on anniversaries. I’ve given up on freshness. Showers are pointless when you step out of the bathroom and into fortified humidity. Despite the heat, I leave the flat to gorge on noodles oiled with meat fat and yeasty goods from BreadTalk. I’m readying for tropical hibernation.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Queen Mob's Teahouse : Sarah Rockx interviews Gary Barwin

As my tenure as interviews editor at Queen Mob's Teahouse continues, the twenty-fifth interview is now online: Sarah Rockx interviews Hamilton, Ontario writer Gary Barwin (originally written as an assignment for Natalee Caple aspart of the Brock University Creative Writing Program). Other interviews from my tenure include: an interview with poet, curator and art critic Gil McElroy, conducted by Ottawa poet Roland Prevostan interview with Toronto poet Jacqueline Valencia, conducted by Lyndsay Kirkhaman interview with Drew Shannon and Nathan Page, also conducted by Lyndsay Kirkhaman interview with Ann Tweedy conducted by Mary Kasimoran interview with Katherine Osborne, conducted by Niina Pollarian interview with Catch Business, conducted by Jon-Michael Franka conversation between Vanesa Pacheco and T.A. Noonan, "On Translation and Erasure," existing as an extension of Jessica Smith's The Women in Visual Poetry: The Bechdel Test, produced via Essay PressFive questions for Sara Uribe and John Pluecker about Antígona González by David Buuck (translated by John Pluecker),"overflow: poetry, performance, technology, ancestry": kaie kellough in correspondence with Eric Schmaltz, and Mary Kasimor's interview with George FarrahBrad Casey interviewed byEmilie LafleurDavid Buuck interviews John Chávez about Angels of the Americlypse: An Anthology of New Latin@ Writing and an interview with Abraham Adams by Ben FamaTender and Tough: Letters as Questions as Letters: Cheena Marie Lo, Tessa Micaela and Brittany Billmeyer-Finn, Kristjana Gunnars’ interview with Thistledown Press author Anne Campbell, Timothy Dyke’s interview with Hawai’i poet Jaimie Gusman, Hailey Higdon's interview with Joanne Kyger, Stephanie Kaylor's interview with Kenyatta JP Garcia, and Jaimie Gusman’s interview with Timothy Dyke.

Further interviews I've conducted myself over at Queen Mob's Teahouse includeGeoffrey YoungClaire Freeman-Fawcett on Spread LetterStephanie Bolster on Three Bloody WordsClaire Farley on CanthiusDale Smith on Slow Poetry in AmericaAllison GreenMeredith QuartermainAndy WeaverN.W Lea and Rachel Loden.

If you are interested in sending a pitch for an interview my way, check out my "about submissions" write-up at Queen Mob's; you can contact me via rob_mclennan (at)