Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Collected Poems of Bob Kaufman, edited by Neeli Cherkovski, Raymond Foye, Tate Swindell

Bob Kaufman is a poet; Bob Kaufman is a man steeped in a mythology sprinkled with a few facts. For many he exists as the man who wrote poems on newspaper margins, the man flowing with plied, jazz-infused visions as wife or friend transcribed his surrealistic rants, the man yelling poems at strangers parking their cars on North Beach street corners, the man repeatedly and repeatedly arrested on San Francisco streets, at times after being harshly beaten by the arresting officers, the man who took a vow of silence unbroken for eleven years. For me he began as the father of a long-forgotten toddle playmate. He was my parents’ friend who came to house parties and wreaked havoc. He was the author of a yellow-covered little book of poetry that held my father’s favorite poem, which he often quoted:

The first man was an idealist, but he died,
he couldn’t survive the first truth,
discovering that the whole
world, all of it, was all his …

(“Suicide”) (“Foreword: ETERNAM POET,” devorah major)

I was intrigued to see a copy of the new Collected Poems of Bob Kaufman, edited by Neeli Cherkovski, Raymond Foye, Tate Swindell, with a Foreword by devorah major (San Francisco CA: City Lights Books, 2019). I’d not actually encountered Kaufman’s work prior to this, but for a poem composed in tribute to the late poet (1925-1986) by Ottawa poet Michael Dennis, included in his classic poems for jessica-flynn (1986). My knowledge of Kaufman is scant: aware of his peripheral associations with and around the Beat poets, and little more. As the back cover to this new volume attests, Kaufman “was one of the most important—and most original—poets of the twentieth century. He is among the inaugurators of what today is characterized as the Afro-Surreal, uniting the surrealist practice of automatic writing with the jazz concept of spontaneous composition.” Collected Poems of Bob Kaufman, then, is a hefty volume of his work, from the three books published during his lifetime—Solitudes Crowed with Loneliness (New Directions, 1965), Golden Sardine (City Lights, 1967) and The Ancient Rain: Poems 1956-1978 (New Directions, 1981)—as well as a healthy selection of uncollected pieces, as the opening “Editorial Note” offers, “from small magazines and public or private collections, diligently unearthed by Tate Swindell, who also compiled the valuable biographical chronology containing much new information.”


No more Jazz
At Alcatraz

No trombone for
Al Capone

No piano for
Lucky Luciano

No more cello for
Frank Costello

No more Jazz
At Alcatraz

The work included here shows Kaufman as a restless writer, one who moved through Beat associations and jazz through to Buddhist teachings, of play and critique and observations on culture, street life, race and simply where his curious attentions would take him, from lyric poems to chants to rants to memoirs composed in prose. Listen to the poem “NO MORE JAZZ AT ALCATRAZ,” a poem from the hefty section of “Uncollected Works,” includes the footnote “Spoken by Bob Kaufman at Specs’ Bar in San Francisco, February 19, 1980; transcribed by Jack Micheline.” This is a short, quirky poem clearly composed for the sake of performance; is quick and playful with rhyme, but one that can’t exist without a far darkner underpinning, one that speaks to violence and race. Kaufman is easily one of those poets of the 20th century known of far more than read, and read more than understood, something this new volume works very much to correct, with a volume that also features devorah major’s worthy Foreword with accompanying archival photographs, and essays on Kaufman and his work by Neeli Cherkovski and Raymond Foye. The two hundred pages-plus of this new Collected Poems of Bob Kaufman has obviously been compiled with an enormous amount of care and attention, clearly as homage for a man as difficult as he was beloved, and as brilliant as he was evasive. As Cherkovski writes in “REMEMBERING BOB,” an excerpt from Whitman’s Wild Children (1988):

            Bob Kaufman strived toward an understanding of the universality necessary for great poetry. He felt that narrow ideological concerns could shut down the “fountain,” as he described it to me. He once told me, “I’m black, Jewish, white, green, and yellow with a blue man inside me struggling to come out.” Often, he begins a poem with his eyes or his head or some other part of his anatomy, and moves outward into the world. He is not visceral but gracefully attuned to his body as a key to opening “the mysteries” he refers to in his poetry. In “Blues for Hal Waters,” he refers to his head as “my secret cranial guitar”; another poem asks, “would you wear my eyes?” Even in the saddest poems he emerges joyous out of ecstatic love for language and its possibilities, reaching out to others:

            My body once covered with beauty
            Is now a museum of betrayal.
            This part remembered because of that one’s touch
            This part remembered for that one’s kiss—
            Today I bring it back
            And let it live forever.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Queen Mob's Teahouse : Jamie Townsend interviews Lindsey Boldt

As my tenure as interviews editor at Queen Mob's Teahouse continues, the latest interview is now online, as Jamie Townsend interviews Olympia, Washington poet Lindsey Boldt. 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 SchmaltzMary Kasimor's interview with George FarrahBrad Casey interviewed byEmilie LafleurDavid Buuck interviews John Chávez about Angels of the Americlypse: An Anthology of New Latin@ WritingBen Fama interviews Abraham AdamsTender and Tough: Letters as Questions as Letters: Cheena Marie Lo, Tessa Micaela and Brittany Billmeyer-FinnKristjana Gunnars’ interview with Thistledown Press author Anne CampbellTimothy Dyke’s interview with Hawai’i poet Jaimie GusmanHailey Higdon's interview with Joanne KygerStephanie Kaylor's interview with Kenyatta JP GarciaJaimie Gusman’s interview with Timothy Dyke,Sarah Rockx interviews Gary BarwinMegan Arden Gallant's interview with Diane SchoemperlenAndrew Power interviews Lauren B. DavisChris Lawrence interviews Jonathan BallAdam Novak interviews Tom SternEli Willms interviews Gregory Betts and Jeremy Luke Hill interviews Kasia JaronczykKaren Smythe and Greg RhynoChris Muravez interviews Ithica, NY poet Marty CainRóise Nic an Bheath interviews Kathryn MacLeodHeather Sweeney interviews J'Lyn ChapmanLisa Birman interviews Portland, Oregon poet Claudia F. SavageJustin Eells interviews Eric BlixLuke Hill interviews Claire TaconJeremy Luke Hill interviews Adam Lindsay HonsingerJeremy Luke Hill interviews Marianne MicrosJennifer Zhou interviews emerging poet Kristin ChangRuby Nangia interviews Medha Singh, Vannessa Barnier interviews short story author Zalika Reid-Benta, Melissa Eleftherion interviews Mariel Fechik, Michelle D'costa interviews Mehdi Kashani and Sivakami Velliangiri, Jeremy Stewart interviews Calgary poet Nikki Reimer, Medha Singh interviews Arun Sagar, Jeremy Luke Hill interviews Governor General's Award-nominated poet Karen Houle, and Alexander Dickow interviews Toby Altman.

Further interviews I've conducted myself over at Queen Mob's Teahouse includeCity of Ottawa Poet Laureate JustJamaal The PoetGeoffrey 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.

Monday, January 20, 2020

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Carolyn Bennett

Writer and comedian Carolyn Bennett cut her teeth performing at Yuk Yuks and hasn't stopped bleeding since. Selected TV credits include This Hour Has 22 Minutes, CBC COMICS and Chilly Beach. Produced plays include Mixed Media (CBC Radio) Pure Convenience (CBC Radio), Runtkiller, The Short List, Hitler's Ass, Canis Familiaris, Sick Kids Wanna Talk To You and Double Down Helix. She won a TIFF Studio Screenwriting Intensive Jury Prize for her feature comedy The Mac and Watson Springtime Reeferendum Show.

Bennett has worked as a senior writer for government and enjoys the perks of sharing the same name as a federal politician. Please Stand By is her first novel.

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

A:  My first book is my only book so far. Please Stand By was released in October by Now or Never Publishing. It has changed me in that I didn't know it was possible to make less money than I do in stand-up comedy. It has changed my life in that I don't hesitate to load my Presto Card (Toronto Transit fare card) $20 at a time. No more $10 these days.

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

A: When I was younger I attempted poetry. Poetry is the calculus of literature. It's convergence, a pining down of infinitesimals. I soon realized I'm more of a geometry type; I like studying the shape of things. That's prose for me -- matter and context.

3 Q: 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?

A: It all depends if deadlines are involved. I love deadlines. When I worked in television, we had to stick to a schedule. I like answering to people. When I'm writing of my own volition to express what burbles beneath the surface of my daily life, then I slow down. It's like stew. Where's the tenderness, the savour, in a rushed stew? I like stew, by the way. Any kind. Vegetarian, meat, what have you.

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

A: Oddly enough, I don't enjoy doing readings as much as I thought I would. I've been doing stand-up for a long time, so you'd think I'd be keen. My writing and my speaking ability are two different things. I write prose so I don't have to speak. I articulate on the page what I don't feel comfortable saying. I had a speech impediment as a kid, so maybe that has something to do with it. People expect me to be funny all the time too. That's why I write -- so I don't have to be funny all the time. But I usually end up being funny anyway. It's like an involuntary reflex, the reflex that got me kicked out of high school on a few occasions. Wait -- I think that's called being a smart-ass.

Q. 5 - 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?

A:  How are we evolving as human beings? That's a place to start. I suppose I strive to define, however elusive that goal may be.

Q. 6 – 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?

A: I'm old fashioned in that my favourite writing has to reveal truth. Truth with a capital T.  However, there are many permutations of truth. But I knows it whens I sees it.  

Q. 7 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

A: It is essential. Aren't all editors outside now? How many editors are on staff at publishers these days?  A good editor will want what's best for your work. A great editor will want what's best for your work, and tell you when you're being an asshole.

Q. 8 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

A: Lately? White space on a page. Lots of it. Most people can't focus on too much text.  Sad, but true.

Q. 9 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to playwriting to comedy)? What do you see as the appeal?

A:  It's easy for me, but it's not so easy for people who think of me only as a stand-up comic. I guess I'll encounter that when I apply for a Canada Council grant for the first time. I like to write plays to put words in other people's mouths, to let other people inhabit characters and situations. There are some tremendously talented actors out there. I get thrilled when I witness great performances. Any kind of great performance-- acting, dance, sports. Fiction for me is problem-solving and definitions and geometry. What do these shapes mean?

Q. 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?

A:  If I am working on a project, four hours a day and/or 600 words the aim. I have spent many years as a Senior Writer for government. Those are the lost years. Financially sweet, but lost as far doing any of my own writing.

Q. 11 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

A: Labatt 50 and Vicks Vapour Rub. Hops and menthol.

Q. 12 What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

A: Write a second novel. Make a feature film. Write another play. Narrow down this list and do one of them.

Thank you rob!

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Teva Harrison, Not One of These Poems Is About You

Ode to the Pacific Ocean

To stand at the edge of the sea
Waves lapping hungrily

To feel the sand shift beneath my feet
Called out to the wonder and the vast

To feel the salt drying on my ankles
Crusting over my porous skin

I am infinite. I am small. I am at peace.
The swirling, the raging – the disquiet
that usually rolls beneath my skin
It is gone, as if it never was

And the waves are crashing
And the waves are lapping
And the waves are creeping in

And my heart is pounding
And my heart is beating
And my heart is open – come in

As Toronto writer and visual artist Teva Harrison (1976-2019) was dealing with metastatic breast cancer, she was composing the poems that would become her posthumous Not One of These Poems Is About You (Toronto ON: House of Anansi, 2020), a heart-wrenching collection of straightforward lyric narratives around living, dying, and loving. There really is a radiance and a warmth that exude from these deeply intimate poems, and with an underpinning of optimism, even as she describes exhaustion, grief, and the preparations for when her long-time partner will be without her. As she writes near the end of the poem “Maybe I’m Just Tired”:

I want to examine each moment by itself,
and by myself. I’m sick of the charts they map
my body on, my progress on, my decline on.

Maybe I’m just tired,
but disassociation becomes entropy and
entropy becomes a solo lucidity.

Her poems, alongside accompanying small sketches, seem composed as short sketches combined with journal entries, seeking their way to articulate and comprehend her thoughts and feelings around terminal illness, and the beauty she has experienced, and that she would leave behind. This is a collection that works to remember moments, and indeed, a book entirely comprised of moments, and the importance of holding on to as many as one can for as long as might be possible.