Sunday, July 23, 2017

Anna Gurton-Wachter, The Abundance Chamber Works Alone

To enter the realm of writing one must take one’s self to divorce court. I’m sorry it has to be this way. The re-education of my working eye winks. To enter the realm of writing is to suffer losses. Run off other sufferers, run off. I wanted to but could not say run off. I need someone to pet me until I fall into a lava tank engine love. The construction worker concept is just an unused drill by the side of the road. The well-lit crane sways in my direction. The trial of the snail is set to begin. Take your time. The trial of the elephant is told to us by the parakeet mind. (“Maya Deren Lives Forever / in the Speedboat at Night”)

Ever since discovering her work via Ugly Duckling Presse’s 6x6 [see my review of such here], I’ve been eager for more work by Brooklyn poet, editor and archivist Anna Gurton-Wachter. I’ve now been rewarded for my patience, thanks to Essay Press producing her chapbook (both as a free pdf online and limited-edition print edition) The Abundance Chamber Works Alone (2017) as #92 in their “Groundloop Series,” a series that seeks “to bring together authors exploring diverse subjects through loud, innovative architectures.” Set in three sequence-sections of prose poems—“Maya Deren Lives Forever / in the Speedboat at Night,” “A Development Proposal / for the Center of the Earth” and “Instances of the Corpse / Flower Pose, a Study Group”—she opens the small collection with an introduction/prose poem titled “PREFACE,” that reads:

There are competing visions of the swamp. Females deposit their eggs in a parasitic territory for gratification alone. The intruder salivates. An act is magnified by formal study. End scene. Later, back at the lab, the summer spirit remains unknown. Parasites surround the forest. What we call a self-created memory worthy of the father and worthy of the mother and worthy of the mountain of golden guts. What we call, “lurking in the water,” or “stable speech acts.” The world is sufficiently killable as the squatters can attest. The abandoned critters are so modest and struggle to become a symbol for the cosmos, seeping through the soil deep inside the earth.

I want to know how to feel when I wash ashore. What to communicate first. You might find yourself the viewer, the violent concept, alive to the spill of sight as it tries to expire. The viewer is meant to experience a faint memory comprised of all possible readings. To feel like the act of reading has accomplished a tunnel display of denied tenderness. You might find yourself inside this lonely boycott state, active inside a motionless pit.

I’m absolutely blown away by the music of her lines, and a rush that sweeps the reader off their feet and into further, unexpected spaces. There is something fascinating in how Gurton-Wachter’s poems exist as abstract essays, constructed as expansive lyric catch-alls, structured to be able to include anything and everything, even while providing a linearity and purpose through each individual sequence. Her work is absolutely stunning, and she is easily one of my favourite American poets without a full-length poetry collection; I can’t imagine such a thing is far off.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, This Accident of Being Lost

Auntie told me to paddle down the river to Chi’Niibish. When I get to the lake, she said to turn west and paddle along the shore until I see the mist of Niagara Falls. As soon as I can see the mist, that’s the spot to lean into the lake and cross. She said that’s how those old Mississauga Nishnaabeg Ashkiwiwininiwag did it, hypnotic hard paddling, drowning out the screams of tired arms and aching shoulders, keeping the mist in sight, in the corner of their right eyes.
            Now I’m sitting on the shore of the lake, thinking about you, at the spot where I’m supposed to be turning and crossing. I always forget how big the lake is. I always forget how blue the lake is, the clean wind picking up drops so I can breathe them in. I’m imagining you’re here and we’re talking about you and me and us, and things that matter. How we got here. Where we’re going. What’s to be done. My impulse is to push the conversation to somewhere it shouldn’t go, somewhere it doesn’t need to go, and I catch myself. I stay centred. I need to have just one more conversation with you so I can write this. I just need to see your movements, your face, your response to the tiny moments of life most never even notice. I need to feel your beautiful boy-spirit rise as you lie down on the cedar boughs, lean in towards the fire and listen to your Kokum’s quiet singing on Zhaawanoog land.
            It can’t just be lists of battles, speeches, failed marriages, and betrayals. (“Leaning In”)

Nishnaabeg storyteller and writer Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s latest collection of stories and songs is This Accident of Being Lost (Toronto ON: Anansi, 2017), a collection of intimate pieces that resist genre, writing out love, labour and loss, in a series of pieces that “continually rebirths a decolonizing reality, one that circles in and out of time and resists dominant narratives or comfortable categorization.” This Accident of Being Lost is a book of resistance, acknowledging the weight and damage of colonialism, but refusing to be overcome by it, writing out prose, poems and lyrics with characters simply trying to exist as best as possible, even while in constant struggle. As she writes of the ongoing loss and disconnect that colonialism has created in the story “Doing The Right Thing”: “My territory is zero minutes from the sliding glass patio door hellhole I’m trapped in.”

Topic 11: Being a Writer Sucks

Writing actually sucks. Like you’re alone in your head for days on end, just wondering if you actually can die of loneliness, just wondering how healthy it is to make all this shit up, and just wondering if you did actually make this shit up, or if you just copied down your life or worse someone else’s life, or maybe you’re just feeding your delusions and neuroses and then advertising it to whoever reads your drivel. (“22.5 Minutes”)

There is both such a lightness and weight to her writing, often occurring in the same breath. Despite, and even through such difficulties, hers are passionate and intimate stories that hold to a foundation of hope and possibility, composed as much as a means of survival as one of optimism, writing out stories of love, human connection and disconnect against a backdrop of cultural oppression reminiscent of Gabriel García Márquez or Milan Kundera.

Friday, July 21, 2017

12 or 20 (second series) questions with José Felipe Alvergue

José Felipe Alvergue is the author of gist : rift : drift : bloom (2015) and precis (2017). A graduate of both the Buffalo Poetics and Calarts Writing Programs, he teaches and lives in Wisconsin.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I suppose that depends on what I consider my first book. I’ve moved recently and had to take stock of old things I might throw out and came across some very old projects. One in particular reminded me of a chapbook I made back in the early 2000s. I’d taken a video camera and walked down a particularly busy street in my hometown, San Ysidro. I remember taking the footage and drawing portraits of faces and then writing short prose/poetry pieces. Really just descriptive passages of place and person. If that were my first book I’d think that it changed me by revealing new ways of envisioning a politics. I’d been a political theory major in undergrad and I’d planned on becoming involved with both law and later politics, but writing offered me something that a life in politics wouldn’t have, which is a sort of immediate availability to the symbols through which politics becomes ‘the political’ identity of a group, nation, community, etc. I think I’ve been tracking this throughout. Even with my last book before precis (gist : rift : drift : bloom). On the surface it’s described as a book on the last wild passenger pigeon, but it’s also about gun law, space, and the religio-moral impressions left behind by the various cultures that have settled the Midwest, and their etymologies. I’d say precis feels different in the stability of readership that comes with the publisher. Omnidawn is an amazing press and they work very hard to promote both their authors, but more importantly poetry. And poetry as a plural and diverse poetics at a moment when commodification puts a lot of pressure on various art forms to accommodate to the consumer. I feel like I’m part of a larger community than I’ve ever really been a member of before.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I remember two impactful events. First, reading Leaves of Grass in a political theory course taught by Tracy Strong––I remember reading it at Monument Park, which is a park at the border wall where it recedes into the ocean (where I did most of my reading for school while in college). And second, I remember becoming acquainted with the Taco Shop Poets in San Diego and getting involved in local projects, meeting artists and poets. Even then, however, I understood poetry to be about story telling, even if in a performatic, or non-fictive disclosure. In fact before writing mostly poetry I’d been writing sort of macabre short stories all taking place at the border––both as an actual geography and imagined space. So it’s not so much that I don’t see genre. I do and I think genre is important in many ways, but the boundaries are more porous than we, culturally, recognize. In short, I came to poetry later, but even while writing short fiction, I was I think already writing poetry throughout the syntax and movement of the pieces. I realize now that my MFA advisor, a novelist (Steve Erickson) might’ve been telling me all along to try poetry more concertedly.

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?
I wouldn’t be able to say one way or another as all of my projects have had different lifespans. I start with research and sometimes this takes a long time, sometimes it takes less time. Then the writing. After, sometimes during, also the arranging. I don’t writ- discrete poems. I work on sustained projects that are from the beginning a ‘whole’ so I think the most time-consuming aspect of how I work is the arranging––the making it all into a book so to speak.

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?
Definitely the latter.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
For a short period I became really invested in performance art. It was a way of interrogating terms I was also writing about critically, like ‘the body’ or ‘space’, ‘becoming’, etc. So a lot of my work involved my body and temporality rather directly. My readings now continue to think about the relationships between language and embodiment I suppose, and they have involved different interruptions to sonoricity, space, breath. I’d say that I enjoy doing only a few readings because they take a lot from me and each one is very specific. I read differently each time. I basically re-compose or re-arrange the work so that I truly feel like I’m performing the initial response of the poetry each and every time.

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?
I have many. I try not to distinguish between scholarship and poetics, though obviously there are many important distinctions. But my questions pertaining to voice, place, and personhood are always coming from the same place of my experiences with politics, diaspora, alienation, and force.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I think writing is essential now. Communication is essential and relevant. The problem I think is that we don’t tend to value communication in the moment––as a wide community––yet later we orient ourselves to lasting words and sometimes even make national holidays commemorating their events. I hope that contemporary communicators can change this and we should be open to how communicators use media, for instance, to interrupt the temporality within which intimacy becomes public. Some problems that I see, especially in academia, is a distance between thinking and the community. But this movement towards the public humanities offers an opportunity to re-work the affective binds between what takes place in the classroom and what takes place outside the classroom. We need to “feel (for) each other” as Fred Moten and Stephano Harney write in The Undercommons, and by this I mean to both invest in the reality of the theoretical discourses we create, while permitting ‘the real’ world to trust in the intellectual labor of clarifying authentic histories from the fabricated narratives meant to gloss over historical reality.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I think it’s great because they see or hear what I miss. And they’re invested in aspects of the poetic that as a writer I can sometimes miss while being so focused on certain parts of the project. Gillian Hamel was my hero at Omnidawn in this regard.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I don’t know about best­­­––I think anything that inspires work is good. Though I think the worst advice I often hear poets give creative writing students is that poetry isn’t about ideas. It’s always about ideas. Even if this is not what we mean when we say it to students, we shouldn’t really say it so carelessly in that it’s utterly not true.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between text and performance? What do you see as the appeal?
See 5. As for appeal I don’t know. It’s a fairly old tradition I think and at many points in literary history readings have signaled the emergence of Community. I think a cool trend that’s come back are house readings. David Hadbawnik re-invigorated this practice in Buffalo while he was there, and Jordan Dunn and Andy Gricevich run a series in Madison called Oscar Presents. I think the appeal of house readings is more authentic for me than bookstore readings, or things of that nature. Then there’s the collaborative events Susan Howe and David Grubbs have been doing, or Cecilia Vicuña readings that disrupt what readings are or have been in many ways. Different readings have different appeals I guess is what I’m saying. What I don’t like are readings that are just sort of impersonal, industry-necessary readings. I think also the kind of stuff Douglas Kearney has been doing for a while, which might explain his turn to experimental opera now, has also pushed out a new space for performance/text to explore each other.

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?
My day begins with changing diapers, making breakfast, dancing, and singing songs to my child. My routine now is about letting go. Treating time in a less compartmentalized fashion and being present where I am needed by someone else for however long that takes. I’ve been working on a project from my research on casta paintings and casta in general throughout Latin America, and it started before the birth of my son, and from me thinking about his being biracial in America today. So my being present for him I think is an extension of the thinking I was doing in his prenatal absence (though he’s always been present as an extension of his mother’s body). My present as unconditional love is now the impossibility of writing from the same or towards the same unconditionability of love despite the over-conditioning obligation of position, race, body, labor, colonialism, etc. While I haven’t written as much as I’d like to have written, I’ve felt the project in a way that I hadn’t realized I should be during the time when I was mostly writing.

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

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Contaminated water. Seriously. Rotten beach smell, and onion fields.

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?
Always the natural world. But in terms of books, Jean Toomer’s Cane and Theresa Cha’s Dictée are books I teach and think about often. I listen to a lot of music, and a lot of different genres and styles at different stages of writing––reading, composing, revising, etc. From son jarocho to EDM, Argentinian and Mexican punk/ska core to Kendrick Lamar, musique concrete, opera, Richard Skelton, post-rock, and so on. Different tempos are conducive to different moments of thought I think.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
See above I suppose.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

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 like observing so maybe something observational/conjectural, like a sort of animal biology (though I don’t like extreme temperatures so it would have to be of a rather uninteresting species).

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
An urgency to draw attention to, to understand for myself, to regain myself from capitalistic and nationalistic obligations to give away my self.

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

20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m working on something that explores the racialized/sexualized body, land, and the emergence of civil laws pertaining to the governance of boundaries between them I’m calling casta for now. It started from looking into and teaching casta paintings in my classes, and from a collection of ekphrastic poems I had lying around related to baroque paintings I’ve had the opportunity to stand in front of throughout the years.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

the above/ground press summer sale! and 24th birthday!

Where do the years go? Thanks to Alexander Monker back in 2013, I rediscovered that July 9 is the anniversary of the first above/ground press reading and launch, way way back in 1993 (I'd spent years presuming the anniversary was in August, for some reason), so I thought we should celebrate twenty-four years (and more than eight hundred publications) with a glorious summer sale!

$25 for any 6 2017 chapbook titles! (until August 15, 2017

including: Domestica, by Sarah Swan ; Series out of Sequence, by Carrie Hunter ; random_lines = random.choice, by Jason Christie ; THIRTY-THREE, by Geoffrey Young ; marginal prints, by philip miletic ; ASTRAL PROJECTION, by Kyle Flemmer ; a a novel 1-20, by Derek Beaulieu ; No Right on Red, by Helen Hajnoczky ; These Ghosts / This Compost: An Aubadeclogue, by Jake Syersak ; SWAMP / SWAMP, by Brenda Iijima ; INVISIBLE WIFE, by Sarah Fox ; from: Sunny girls, by Sandra Moussempès (translated by Eléna Rivera ; Stephen Collis, FIRST SKETCH OF A POEM I WILL NOT HAVE WRITTEN ; Jordan Abel, TIMELESS AMERICAN CLASSIC ; poorsong one, by Lisa Robertson ; Marilyn Irwin, north ; Open Island, by Faizal Deen ; Inaccuracies, by Ian Whistle ; The Lover is Absent, by Jessica Smith ; SOMEWHERE THE / SHAKING, by Sarah Cook ; CANCON, by nathan dueck

while supplies last (like, obviously,

To order, send cheques (US orders, add $2 for postage; outside Canada/US, add $5) to: rob mclennan, 2423 Alta Vista Drive, Ottawa ON K1H 7M9 or paypal at

with forthcoming titles from: Alyssa Bridgman, Geoffrey Nilson, Matthew Johnstone, Adele Graf, N.W. Lea, Sacha Archer, Stephanie Bolster, Buck Downs, Valerie Coulton, Katy Lederer and Sarah Dowling. but if you were a subscriber, you wouldn't even need to be scrolling through names, right? 2018 subscriptions will become available beginning October 1, 2017 (there are a lot of cool things already in the works for our twenty-fifth year...).

and keep an eye out on the annual above/ground press anniversary reading/launch/party! most likely to occur in August; there is so much to come I can't even,

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Michelle Elrick, Then/Again

What is home? Since childhood, I have played with various definitions, trying to get at the heart of the concept, to pin it down with meaning. At its most basic, home is a place to be from, a current address or childhood residence. Then again, home can also be as nondescript as a region on a map or a suburb vibe or a downtown feel. Almost immediately, the definition gets complicated. I have come back again and again to the axiom “home is where the heart is,” which my mother had hanging in cross-stitch on the kitchen wall of the Monashee house where I learned to read. This definition includes people—the people I care about and remain intimately connected to despite place or proximity. (“Introduction”)

In her second trade poetry collection, following To Speak (Winnipeg MB: The Muses’ Company, 2010), Halifax poet Michelle Elrick’s Then/Again (Gibsons BC: Nightwood Editions / a blewointment book, 2017), the book alternates from prose to lyric in seven paired sections, reminiscent of the call-and-response of Leonard Cohen’s Death of a Lady’s Man (McClelland and Stewart, 1978). In her introduction, Elrick writes of the impossibility of home and her multiple points-of-departure, from “the Parish of Rathven, Scotland, where the last Scottish Elricks of my paternal line lived prior to their emigration in the mid-nineteenth century” to Salzburg, Austria, “where my mother was born and raised until age ten, with a final stop in Abbotsford, British Columbia where I spent my first twenty years.” There is something curiously akin to the work of Susan Howe in how the prose explorations throughout the collection are punctuated by their paired poems, reworking research, description and personal history into image, phrase and line-break, and yet, concurrently, each short prose-piece also works as introduction to the short lyric sequences. Howe might not be a fair comparison, given how difficult it would be to achieve her level of self-awareness, but Elrick manages some intriguing strides on home, the elusiveness, potential discovery and impossibility of something that can never remain static, even within our own memories.

what was before? what innocent strides through a white
world? and before any concept of a whitening, back
when the world was green, brown, littered with flowers?
I was moving, but toward what?

a warm wind rises, blind insulation slow melts.

I have used the language of baptism and of drowning
and of the seed burst in black soil. now I say it plainly:
I do not know where or what I am in relation to.

Any writing on attempting to discern or describe home is an exploration of the self, falling into the most basic human questions: who am I? In her introduction, she writes, close to the end: “I study my skin, marked with fine wrinkles and white dots of lost pigment.” What becomes interesting in such a journey is what considerations the author gains upon a return to her beginnings, returning after the end of her travels to who she has been the whole time. Such journeys are both attempting discovery and a degree of articulating what couldn’t have been articulated before. And, as far as discovery goes, Elrick’s Then/ Again feels, in many ways, an opening salvo for something far more expansive and complex. After journeying through her own geographic and historic past, I will be curious to see what she might discover, and be able to articulate, in, say, five years, or ten. Or twenty. Sometimes these journeys are life-long. In the poem “Tracking,” she writes of a search that can never be straightforward, even slightly convoluted for the sake of the searching itself: “if what you are looking for can be found, it can only be found / by looking, as the way, by walking. as tracks become explanation / only in relation to one another.” As her introduction ends:

Here, I sit. I sit and read, just like I used to do. I sit and read something I’ve never read before on a balcony overlooking a garden of new leaves. Wild deer feast on a landscaped smorgasbord of succulent perennials and designer shrubs. They don’t run when a car passes by on the street below. Place domesticates. Sun on my skin, the scent of my skin perspiring in the sun.