Monday, December 11, 2023

Ben Meyerson, Seguiriyas


Tekiah Gedolah

Wind through the ram’s horn. Bone-stench,
a blast from the varicose canal. Stillness
slants the swaying crowd—I await the lengthened
tone even once it spills into my ears:
the breath is sapped of air before it ever fills,
stretched and pale to be preserved, dead but not—
time is a leech that lets the note like blood,
a year milked out into the swollen abdomen of history,
its woolen pulse that ebbs from organs out to breath
and back, our corner of Toronto in a holding pattern
of sleep cars, finery, forgetting. Blithe assurance
that we are special. Wind through the horn.
The call, a muscle wrenched beyond
its axis of return. Time is a leech.

I’m intrigued by this full-length debut by poet Ben Meyerson, a poet who currently splits his time between Canada and Spain, the collection Seguiriyas (Boston MA/Chicago IL: Black Ocean, 2023). Following on the heels of four poetry chapbooks—In a Past Life (The Alfred Gustav Press, 2016), Holcocene (Kelsay Books, 2019), An Ecology of the Void (above/ground press, 2019) and Near Enough (Seven Kitchens Press, 2023)—Seguiriyas is expansive and ambitious: composed around a particular musical structure, one with deep cultural ties to the Gitanos (the Romani population) of Andalusia. To close the three-page “Al Cante,” he writes: “To live is to be buoyed / without knowledge of the buoyancy: // a cry that gives and refuses to give. // A cry that accompanies the cry.”

As his “Author’s Note” offers, the “Seguiriyas” of his title “is derived from the flamenco palo (or ‘song form’) of the same name.” Structured with opening poem “Close” and closing poem “Open,” with four numbered sections of poems in between, Meyerson composes an assemblage of poems that fit together as thoughtfully as individual puzzle pieces, or possibly a quilt, all assembled through and around the larger musical structure of the song form. “Take dawn and make it a hinge,” he writes, to open the poem “Daybreak Translation,” “as if night is a shutter to be tugged / up or down / in the talons of a rock dove, pulled / from above, where the pulsation of wingtips / warps air into pillars banished sharp / against the empyrean cliff, whose summit / is a vertex in the fold / of a face averting.” The poems write elements around and through the large subject of placement, displacement and history—a perspective from and a tether between his Toronto upbringing to larger conversations around diaspora—and how cultural memory is held, passed on and preserved. His opening “Author’s Note” goes on to write:

The seguiriyas palo is known to draw on solemn subject matter— poverty, displacement, incarceration, mistreatment, and lost love are among the most commonly recurring themes across the extant collection of traditional lyrics, which have emerged out of the historical memory, social life and material conditions of the Gitano community in the Iberian Peninsula. Though the vast majority of flamenco’s oldest lyrics within palos such as the siguiriya and the soleá (another fundamental song form in the tradition) can only be dated back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they often showcase an awareness of events in Andalusia that occurred centuries prior, detailing aestheticized interactions with Muslims and Moriscos, who were formally expelled from Spain in 1609, making reference to the historical presence of Jews, who were expelled in 1492, and alluding to the heavily discriminatory policies that the central authorities imposed against the Gitano population between 1499 and 1783, which led to waves of incarceration and the forcible conscription of many Gitano men as rowers in the galleys that carried out the state’s imperial affairs.

Sunday, December 10, 2023

Spotlight series #92 : Kyla Houbolt

The ninety-second in my monthly "spotlight" series, each featuring a different poet with a short statement and a new poem or two, is now online, featuring California poet Kyla Houbolt.

The first eleven in the series were attached to the Drunken Boat blog, and the series has so far featured poets including Seattle, Washington poet Sarah Mangold, Colborne, Ontario poet Gil McElroy, Vancouver poet Renée Sarojini Saklikar, Ottawa poet Jason Christie, Montreal poet and performer Kaie Kellough, Ottawa poet Amanda Earl, American poet Elizabeth Robinson, American poet Jennifer Kronovet, Ottawa poet Michael Dennis, Vancouver poet Sonnet L’Abbé, Montreal writer Sarah Burgoyne, Fredericton poet Joe Blades, American poet Genève Chao, Northampton MA poet Brittany Billmeyer-Finn, Oji-Cree, Two-Spirit/Indigiqueer from Peguis First Nation (Treaty 1 territory) poet, critic and editor Joshua Whitehead, American expat/Barcelona poet, editor and publisher Edward Smallfield, Kentucky poet Amelia Martens, Ottawa poet Pearl Pirie, Burlington, Ontario poet Sacha Archer, Washington DC poet Buck Downs, Toronto poet Shannon Bramer, Vancouver poet and editor Shazia Hafiz Ramji, Vancouver poet Geoffrey Nilson, Oakland, California poets and editors Rusty Morrison and Jamie Townsend, Ottawa poet and editor Manahil Bandukwala, Toronto poet and editor Dani Spinosa, Kingston writer and editor Trish Salah, Calgary poet, editor and publisher Kyle Flemmer, Vancouver poet Adrienne Gruber, California poet and editor Susanne Dyckman, Brooklyn poet-filmmaker Stephanie Gray, Vernon, BC poet Kerry Gilbert, South Carolina poet and translator Lindsay Turner, Vancouver poet and editor Adèle Barclay, Thorold, Ontario poet Franco Cortese, Ottawa poet Conyer Clayton, Lawrence, Kansas poet Megan Kaminski, Ottawa poet and fiction writer Frances Boyle, Ithica, NY poet, editor and publisher Marty Cain, New York City poet Amanda Deutch, Iranian-born and Toronto-based writer/translator Khashayar Mohammadi, Mendocino County writer, librarian, and a visual artist Melissa Eleftherion, Ottawa poet and editor Sarah MacDonell, Montreal poet Simina Banu, Canadian-born UK-based artist, writer, and practice-led researcher J. R. Carpenter, Toronto poet MLA Chernoff, Boise, Idaho poet and critic Martin Corless-Smith, Canadian poet and fiction writer Erin Emily Ann Vance, Toronto poet, editor and publisher Kate Siklosi, Fredericton poet Matthew Gwathmey, Canadian poet Peter Jaeger, Birmingham, Alabama poet and editor Alina Stefanescu, Waterloo, Ontario poet Chris Banks, Chicago poet and editor Carrie Olivia Adams, Vancouver poet and editor Danielle Lafrance, Toronto-based poet and literary critic Dale Martin Smith, American poet, scholar and book-maker Genevieve Kaplan, Toronto-based poet, editor and critic ryan fitzpatrick, American poet and editor Carleen Tibbetts, British Columbia poet nathan dueck, Tiohtiá:ke-based sick slick, poet/critic em/ilie kneifel, writer, translator and lecturer Mark Tardi, New Mexico poet Kōan Anne Brink, Winnipeg poet, editor and critic Melanie Dennis Unrau, Vancouver poet, editor and critic Stephen Collis, poet and social justice coach Aja Couchois Duncan, Colorado poet Sara Renee Marshall, Toronto writer Bahar Orang, Ottawa writer Matthew Firth, Victoria poet Saba Pakdel, Winnipeg poet Julian Day, Ottawa poet, writer and performer nina jane drystek, Comox BC poet Jamie Sharpe, Canadian visual artist and poet Laura Kerr, Quebec City-area poet and translator Simon Brown, Ottawa poet Jennifer Baker, Rwandese Canadian Brooklyn-based writer Victoria Mbabazi, Nova Scotia-based poet and facilitator Nanci Lee, Irish-American poet Nathanael O'Reilly, Canadian poet Tom Prime, Regina-based poet and translator Jérôme Melançon, New York-based poet Emmalea Russo, Toronto-based poet, editor and critic Eric Schmaltz, San Francisco poet Maw Shein Win, Toronto-based writer, playwright and editor Daniel Sarah Karasik, Ottawa poet and editor Dessa Bayrock, Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia poet Alice Burdick, poet, writer and editor Jade Wallace and San Francisco-based poet Jennifer Hasegawa.
The whole series can be found online here.

Saturday, December 09, 2023

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Mandy-Suzanne Wong

Mandy-Suzanne Wong is a Bermudian writer of fiction and essays. Her novels include The Box, a Bustle Best Books selection, and Drafts of a Suicide Note, a Foreword INDIES finalist and PEN Open Book Award nominee. Awabi, her duet of short stories, won the Digging Press Chapbook Series Award; and her essay collection Listen, we all bleed was a PEN/Galbraith nominee and ASLE Book Award finalist. Her work appears in Black Warrior Review, Electric Literature, Literary Hub, Litro, Menagerie, Superstition Review, and Necessary Fiction and has won recognition in the Best of the Net and Aeon Award competitions.

She is represented by Akin Akinwumi (aakinwumi at willenfield dot com) at Willenfield Literary Agency.

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

My first book, Awabi, a duet of short stories, won the inaugural Digging Press Chapbook Series Award. It was my first opportunity to work with an editor, the great Gessy Alvarez, from whom I learned so much. She gave me the confidence to develop some of Awabi’s characters into protagonists of my current novel-in-progress, of which the lead character, Ayuka, daily brings me joy.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?

Since my earliest days, all my favorite books have been novels; and it’s reading other books that makes me want to write them. Fiction has always been a refuge for me, a way of getting out of myself.

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 project. All my books begin as reams of handwritten notes; but whereas my novel The Box came together in less than a year, with the final manuscript bearing a surprising degree of resemblance to the first drafts, Ayuka’s novel is already in its third major overhaul.

4 - Where does a prose work 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?

Again, it depends. The Box and my first novel Drafts of a Suicide Note were conceived as novels, the novel form being my first love as a writer and my favorite kind of book to read. My short story “The Indoor Gardener,” though its acceptance for publication preceded that of The Box, began as an excerpt from that novel. Ayuka’s novel, though, is arising from short stories.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I do enjoy giving readings, but I also find it terrifying. I’ve been fortunate in my audiences, which for the most part have been encouraging rather than discouraging. But I prefer only to give readings of work that’s already settled into itself.

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 seem to be obsessed with anti-anthropocentrism. Even when the first spark of a project is a human character, some nonhuman thing or phenomenon, like the handful of paper in Drafts of a Suicide Note, shows up to undermine the human characters’ agency and self-control. Dispelling the human from the center of our imaginative universes is vital: it has long been time to put other Earthlings first and to admit that without, for example, a healthy Ocean, our species will not survive. It’s our species’ hubris, believing humans to be the most important beings on Earth, believing ourselves to be entitled (by virtue of nothing whatsoever!) to exploit and consume everything else, that’s directly causing global ecological collapse.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

Literature has the ability to pinpoint and question the ambiguities inherent to each and every moment; great writing discovers beauty in ambivalence, complexity, even contradiction. In today’s egocentric, exclusionist, and exploitative cultures where simplistic demagoguery and unquestioning cancelations decide what counts as “free expression,” ambiguity is suffocated at every turn—and yet, it may be the only truth.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I’ve been really fortunate so far in that the best, most talented, professional, and companiable editors have wanted to work with me; and they have shared my determination to make the book or story of the moment its best self. Even when that self is weird and doesn’t “fit in.” They’ve also relished joy and laughter as integral parts of the process, and that is so important.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

From Grace Paley in The Paris Review, an interview to which my awesome editor Yuka Igarashi drew my attention: “One of the first things I tell my classes is, If you want to write, keep a low overhead. […] Don’t live with a lover or roommate who doesn’t respect your work. […] Write what will stop your breath if you don’t write.”

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (short stories to essays to the novel)? What do you see as the appeal?

I wouldn’t say that moving between forms has ever been easy for me. Novels and short stories require very different strategies for timing and pacing; essays are beholden to things beyond themselves to a greater extent than fiction. These constraints present specific challenges and opportunities that preclude effortless flowing between forms. But I do aspire to such flexibility in my writing; I don’t want my work to fall into unbreakable patterns. That means continuing to experiment with form, genre, language, subject matter beyond my comfort zones. Each project has something new to teach me.

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 try to keep to an eight-hour workday just as I would in any profession, but that doesn’t always pan out. Each morning begins with some sort of caffeinated beverage and a phone conversation with my mom, almost always about books!

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

From the edge of writerly despair, I turn to other writers’ books. Anything with beautiful prose might help me to stave off panic and regroup—to find, if not exactly inspiration, the courage and desire to carry on searching for ideas.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Seaweed in salt water.

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?

Other-than-human Earthlings, including boxes, snails, sounds, artworks, buildings, shapes, and theoretical or scientific papers, are vital influences on my writing. I tend to think about language in musical terms; my sentences prioritize rhythm, timbre, tone, breath, phrasing . . . Even though I’m not a poet, the way a piece looks on a page, even in manuscript, is also an important consideration for me.

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

Ah! You got me started. This list could go on for reams. Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, Clarice Lispector, Sofia Samatar, Andrei Platonov, Antoine Volodine, Lev Tolstoy, Mark Haber, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Fernando Pessoa, Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, Salman Rushdie, Amina Cain, Terry Pratchett, Mieko Kanai, Marie N’Diaye, Maxim Osipov, Chinua Achebe, Maria Stepanova, Yoko Tawada, W.G. Sebald, Maaza Mengiste, Yoko Ogawa . . .

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

I wish I understood Greek, Japanese, Russian, Portuguese, and German, and I wish I could improve my totally inadequate French and Italian. If only such things came easily.

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?

Had I not decided to throw caution to the winds, throw over my education and common sense, and become a writer, I would’ve ended up a miserable musicologist or piano teacher wishing daily for the world to end me.

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

Can’t help it. Can’t stop. Tried to stop and (see question 17) shan’t try again.

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

Right now I’m reading two phenomenal novels for blurbs. Watch for both of them in 2024! Lesser Ruins by Mark Haber (forthcoming from Coffee House) is an inimitable digression on digression, grief, and techno that curls and stretches language in ways that English doesn’t often dare. The Future Was Color by Patrick Nathan (forthcoming from Counterpoint) looks obliquely at McCarthy-era artworlds while experimenting elegantly with the very idea of “plot,” with what makes a story a love story, and of course with color. Films haven’t been doing it for me lately, but Nathan’s novel may just make me want to take another look at Old Hollywood.

20 - What are you currently working on?

In addition to Ayuka’s novel, I’m working with several writers and artists on The Tubercled Blossom Pearly Mussel Memorial Library of Hope, which I was invited to create for Delisted 2023; an international artistic collaboration curated by Jennifer Calkins in honor of twenty-one nonhuman species that were recently stricken off the US Endangered Species List and declared extinct, relieving the US Government of the obligation to either seek them out or preserve their habitats.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Friday, December 08, 2023

Nikki Reimer, No Town Called We


Fear Is, Um, Part of Love

an insect’s eye is how we begin
we’re thick with it
fear with

riotous cones and rods
how we melt into it
sick with

worry into muddled
now you see
not fear but

one dozen refractions of
the other’s body

blink again, whoops
followed one dozen arms
to their logical conclusion
now we don’t

The latest from Calgary poet and editor Nikki Reimer—following the trade collections [sic] (Calgary AB: Frontenac House, 2010) [see my review of such here], DOWNVERSE (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2014) [see my review of such here] and My Heart Is a Rose Manhattan (Talonbooks, 2019) [see my review of such here], and chapbooks fist things first (Windsor ON: Wrinkle Press, 2009), that stays news (Vancouver BC: Nomados Literary Publishers, 2011) and BEHIND THE DRYWALL (Gytha Press, 2021) [see my review of such here]—is No Town Called We (Talonbooks, 2023), published alongside the companion above/ground press visual chapbook, Dinosaurs of Glory (2023). Composed across a quartet of lyric clusters—“No Town Called Poetry,” “The Daily We,” “One Poet Always Lies” and “The iLL Symbolic”—No Town Called We is a suite of lyric experimentation and cultural discourse, working to orient and even articulate oneself amid a field that pushes an insistence to keep moving, move forward and do not question. “consciously enter the state of we,” the poem “Keep on Truck” ends, “via this inherited truck / in the land of trucks and honey / to keep moving: / just keep moving [.]” If David Martin’s recent Kink Bands (Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 2023) [see my review of such here] examined considerations of the underground, including minerals and their extraction, Reimer examines the effects of those very extractions upon the land, the landscape, the people and multiple cultures above ground. As she wrote specifically of that companion chapbook in periodicities: a journal of poetry and poetics: “Resistance, too, might take the form of art practice, a deliberative contemplative act that refuses to be yoked to the wheel of capitalism. Not product, but practice. Listening to the bees while turning your pain into art. And together these methods of resistance might become a kind of agnostic prayer.”

Reimer’s is a lyric that has been increasingly open and engaged on deeply personal matters of grief, fear, loss and anxiety, examining death, climate crisis and capitalism generally, and Alberta’s oil production and ensuing climate devastations and overt cultural loss through the capitalist engine more specifically, as well as her ongoing grief following the sudden and unexpected loss of her brother. In No Town Called We, she speaks of direct human consequence upon the land and landscape, the responsibilities and failures of humans generally, and even poets, specifically, offering the poem “But the Moon” as a kind of complaint on distraction, focused on what is happening in the sky instead of here on the ground. “What exactly did you think the moon was going to do for you, poet?” she writes. “Why are you writing these words, line by line by line?” As Reimer writes to open the poem “Plants We Have Killed”: “what duty of care do we owe each other? // when embodiment stands in / for direct action?”