Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Rita Wong, undercurrent

both the ferned & the furry, the herbaceous & the human, can call the ocean our ancestor. our blood plasma sings the composition of seawater. roughly half a billion years ago, ocean reshaped some of its currents into fungi, flora & fauna that left their marine homes & learned to exchange bodily fluids on land. spreading like succulents & stinging nettles, our salty-wet bodies refilled their fluids through an eating that is also always drinking. hypersea is a story of how we rearrange our oceanic selves on land. we are liquid matrix, streaming & recombining through ingestic one another, as a child swallows a juicy plum, as a beaver chews on tree, as a hare inhales a patch of moist, dewy clover. what do we return to the ocean that let us loose on land? we are animals moving extracted & excreted minerals into the ocean without plan or precaution, making dead zones though we are capable of life. (“BORROWED WATERS: THE SEA AROUND US, THE SEA WITHIN US”)

Vancouver poet Rita Wong’s fourth poetry collection, undercurrent (Gibson’s BC: Nightwood Editions, 2015)—following monkeypuzzle (Vancouver BC: Press Gang, 1998), forge (Nightwood Editions, 2007) and sybil unrest (with Larissa Lai; Vancouver BC: Line Books, 2008; New Star, 2013)—is, as Wang Ping informs on the back cover, a “love song for rivers, land, and sentient beings on earth.” Constructed out of lyric fragments, prose poems, memoir notes and extensive research, undercurrent is an extensive pastiche of the story of numerous bodies of water, and our relationships to them. Writing in, around and through the lyric flow, the poems exist, in part, as an extensive call to action against an increasing level of human carnage inflicted upon the earth and its inhabitants: “midway at midway, sun glares plastic trashed, beached, busted / bottle caps, broken lighters, brittle shreds in feathered corpses // heralded by the hula hoop & the frisbee, this funky plastic age / spins out unplanned aftermath, ongoing agony” (“MONGO MONDO”). Unlike a number of other British Columbia poets writing on the dangerous effects of capitalism, Wong’s undercurrent, much like Cecily Nicholson’s From the Poplars (Talonbooks, 2014), allows her subject matter to be the focus, existing not as victim but as robust character, describing a series of affronts, assaults and toxic tales, as well as positive stories on the beauty and power of the undercurrent. As she writes:

after eighty destructive years
industrial blockage of salmon habitat
we celebrate this uncanny return in the city:
salmon to Still Creek in 2012
alert, adept swimmers
kindle, perpetuate, astound
with sleek scaly stamina
miraculous as the salmon that grace Musqueam Creek
with each year’s turn around the sun
an unbroken vow between relatives

Composed as collage, this is the story of water.

In spring 2014, canoeing in the gentle River of Golden Dreams near Whistler, BC, I fell in when we snagged on a branch and suddenly tipped over. The shock of cold water awoke me into vigilance. Wearing a lifejacket did not eliminate the fear I felt as the river enveloped me completely, reminded me of its power.

Ironically, I cannot swim, though I have taken lessons over the years, and continue to try learning in an on-again, off-again way, as skin and health permit. Having addressed barriers to swimming in the city one by one – finding an ozone-purified pool instead of a chlorinated one, getting prescription goggles, practicing kicks, etc. I have improved but still find myself woefully clumsy and tense in the water, as it conducts so much sound and stimulus, thicker than air. How can someone write a book with and for water, and not swim? Very humbly and respectfully, I would say. It’s not so much that I fear the water, as I fear my own inability to manoeuvre in it, based in part on my reluctance to relax, the resistance to submit to the water’s own dynamics for more than a few breaths. This is partly what I mean when I say that I am still learning water’s syntax. I mean that in a much larger way too, though. One water body flows together with other water bodies, a whole greater than its parts. “What you cannot do alone, you will do together.”

Thanks to the river’s prompting, I will return to the swim lessons when the time and conditions are right. In the meantime, even for those who don’t swim, water rules! Our cities and lifestyles are built upon it, whether we know it or not. Try going a day, or three, without water. Water gives us life. What do we give back to water?

Monday, May 25, 2015

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Claire Caldwell

Claire Caldwell is a poet from Toronto, where she also edits Harlequin romances and runs rap-poetry workshops for kids. Her first collection, Invasive Species, was one of the National Post's top five poetry books of 2014. Claire was the 2013 winner of the Malahat Review's long poem prize, and she is a graduate of the University of Guelph's MFA program.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Writing and publishing a book was a lifelong dream, so I've been savouring the achievement. Having a book has definitely made me busier with literary things, and I've been lucky enough to travel around Canada and to the States for readings. The opportunity to connect with other poets across the country has been wonderful.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
It's funny; fiction was definitely my first love, as a reader, and I wrote a lot of stories as a kid. I think I came to poetry through the music I listened to in high school—Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Ani DiFranco. And then I read Eliot's "Prufrock" for the first time and was like, "how do I do that?" We had a Collected Poems lying around the house and I read it cover to cover, and after that there was no going back.

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?

If I'm in the right mood, I can write and shape a poem into its close-to-final form in one sitting. But the "right mood" comes out of a longer, looser process of jotting down notes, reading, taking long walks, letting things percolate.

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?
I like to gather images and scraps of lines and let them sit together for awhile. When they start rubbing off on each other, I can usually get going. I take this approach with larger projects, too. Though hopefully the poems I'm working on now will eventually be part of a book, they need some time to get to know each other before they build the house they're going to live in.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I used to get really nervous, but now I love doing readings. I like connecting so directly with an audience. And the more readings I do, the more I "hear" my poems as I write them. I think there's a literal component to voice in poetry--how do the words feel in your own mouth? Also, I often find that poetry readings, whether or not I'm on the bill, can spark creativity. You know when a poet just kills it and the room feels electric? That's contagious, I think.

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'm curious about how poetry can connect people to the world around them in ways other media can't. All these massive, scary things are happening to our planet and it can be hard to grapple with that, emotionally, without just shutting down. I'm trying to figure out how poetry can bridge that emotional gap.

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?
Writers can have lots of different roles, but I think ultimately writing and reading are acts of empathy. So as long as a drive for connection and understanding is at the heart of what a writer's trying to do, there are endless ways to occupy that space in society.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Essential! Paul Vermeersch edited Invasive Species, and his sharp eye, keen insights and experienced hand challenged me to make the book better. Maybe I'm biased, since I also work as an editor, but I believe getting an outside perspective from someone who can read your work on its own terms while offering constructive feedback is invaluable.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Kevin Connolly told me, "writing is action." It's both true and a good reminder to stop dicking around.

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've struggled to figure out a consistent routine with a full time job (and a long commute), but I try to carve out weekend mornings and early afternoons for writing. A typical workday usually begins with peanut butter toast and an hour or so of reading on public transit.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
When I'm stuck, I'll listen to a podcast, start a sewing project, play guitar, work out, bake muffins, clean the bathroom.... Getting away from the blank screen/page for a bit and doing something with my hands usually helps take the pressure off and get thoughts flowing.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
My dad's beef stew, a smell I love and miss, though neither my brother nor I eat meat anymore.

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?
Right now, nature and life sciences probably have the biggest influence on my work. As I mentioned above, music was my gateway drug into poetry. At various times, visual artists like William Kurelek, Georgia O'Keefe, David Blackwood, Joseph Cornell and Tom Thomson have also influenced me.

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

One of my most beloved poems/performances is this recording of bpNichol reading "Friends as Footnotes," from The Martyrology.

There are too many writers to name, working in poetry and prose, fiction and non-fiction, but here are a few: Dara Wier, Sue Goyette, Elizabeth Kolbert, Roxane Gay, Jenni Fagan, Claudia Rankine, Dorothea Lasky, Galway Kinnell, Karen Solie.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Write a book for kids.

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?
If I had more of a mind for hard data, I'd love to be some kind of scientist/biologist--maybe an animal behaviourist. I love the idea of working outside, and I spent many summers at a canoe tripping camp, so being a wilderness guide could also be appealing.

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I did all kinds of arts as a kid, and by high school I had narrowed things down to fine art, music and writing. I was pretty good at drawing and playing guitar, and I still love both, but for whatever reason, when I tried to create original work in either medium I got stuck. Writing came naturally, so I stuck with it.

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

I'm in the middle of Kenneth Koch's Rose, Where Did You Get that Red? It's a really inspiring and insightful book about teaching poetry to kids. The last great film I saw was Timbuktu, a feature about the Islamist occupation of that city/region. One thing I loved about that film was the treatment of subtitles. So many different languages are spoken in the film, but not every character understands every language, and depending on the POV of each scene, certain lines aren't translated for the viewer, either.

19 - What are you currently working on?
A smattering of poems, just trying to gain steam after a hectic winter. Since it's poetry month, I'm following along, somewhat, with the daily NaPoWriMo 2015 prompts for inspiration/motivation.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Julia Bloch, Valley Fever


Outside the city is a thick line of thinking
and outside that line of thinking is a strip
of water and outside that strip of water
is a muscle. Lengthen the muscle.
Show restraint and perfect tension. That is
Allison Corporation.

California is not new.
California is not new.
California is not new.

This is a poem for you for you
for spontaneous flight
Because we live underneath some helicopters.

I’m rewriting the plan.
I’m rewiring the plan.

And outside that muscle is fat and bone
and a car that carries the body elsewhere.

We love the drones.
We love that they all have heads and
arms to fight with. All their
arms are united. You were not
born in California but neither was I.
I am angling at the surface larger

than your actual face, a not
corporate body. This is a love poem
and I did not do any research.

Philadelphia poet, critic and editor Julia Bloch’s eagerly-awaited second poetry collection is Valley Fever (Portland OR/San Francisco CA: Sidebrow Books, 2015), a book that appears three years after the publication of her Letters to Kelly Clarkson (Sidebrow Books, 2012). There is a precision to Bloch’s dense lyrics that is quite compelling, one that is constructed out of an accumulation of sharp sentences that accumulate, despite the appearance of narrative disjunction that exist between those sentences. As she writes to open the poem “FOURTH WALK”: “Don’t believe in writing as possession. Don’t / believe in bylines like slimming wear.” It is as though the sentences in her poems less leap from point-to-point than somehow float across and even through their own trajectory, seamlessly incorporating a wide array of ideas and fragments together into a single thread. As she writes to open “VISALIA”: “An allergy to / bone, this weather. / That’s how deep.”

Bloch’s short lyrics have an incredible compactness. To call her poems “quirky” or even “surreal” might do them a disservice, but both elements exist in Valley Fever, alongside a deep earnestness, a wry self-awareness and an engaged critique of everything she observes. As she writes to close the poem “UNSEASONAL”: “Once someone said love / turned off like a faucet. // I didn’t want this / to be that kind of party.”


New definitions of
doing poorly dewing
up on the face.
Not always facing up,
not always aware
of corners, sad
and lite-jazzy.
Aristotle says
thought by itself
moves nothing. No one
decides to have sacked Troy.
All the sounds are in miniature
but the room is large
in ruined light.

Constructed as a collection of short lyrics, Valley Fever presents a curious shift from the epistolary poems that made up her first collection, Letters to Kelly Clarkson. Given the book-as-unit-of-composition element of that prior work, it is tempting to read this new book not as a grouping of stand-alone poems but as a thoughtfully-conceived single work, and perhaps the real answer might be that this exists as a combination of the two. Somehow, her poems encompass an expansive curiosity, a healthy distrust of what she sees and knows, and manage to include just about anything and everything you can imagine, in a series of poems sketched as notes towards understanding how it is one can live, and be, better in the world. As she ends the poem “RIGHT OVARY, LEFT OVARY”: “I want to know all the things. / I want to know all the gods.”


On Locust Street with its low steps
I thought I saw a pastel hotel
settle its elbows onto the walk.
When I talk to you sometimes my tongue
bubbles out of my mouth—I wanted
to say forth but it doesn’t march, it starts
and stops. The mouth rooted and frothy, lit
with an everyday flavor. The string skips. Paul
Zukofsky’s violin stutters. L. says a way
not to feel nervous is to look at the eye.
Hopefully there is a salted sea when you
look there. Horses marching
under their hands. It’s never
going to happen.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Oana Avasilichioaei, Limbinal

The lines were drawn without our consent. This is an empty statement, for the drawing of the lines did not require our consent. We shored the river but turned away when we realized our subjectivities were seeping into it. We fought unfairly. Overgrown like wedges of land covered in weeds. With our jugular appendages, we intoned coarse sounds. Ventured to look past our moss-ridden thighs. Mostly, our soundings were futile, husked. But there were moments of lucidity, even resonance. Then our hands would reach out to touch each other’s throats as though in recognition. Or acknowledgment. Petals of thought blew gusts around us. Small creatures guarded our solitudes. Which churned in the cavern of our guts. The vastness of our intention was a material we could not fathom. We asked questions that had no answers and as such perpetuated into quarries of language. (“Line Drawings”)

Montreal poet and translator Oana Avasilichioaei’s new collection, Limbinal (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2015), is built as a series of lyric explorations of borders and partitions, attempting to articulate the no-man’s land between fixed ideas, solid objects and a variety of poles, from geography to genre, even moving into footnotes and beyond, into the margins themselves. As she writes near the beginning of the opening section, “Bound”:

The geography keeps shifting into bloom and decay, thus daring to future. Periphery disrupts the dialogue. Floundering, wet lines linger. Fish bend the river into its undulations, spring curves. Will these trajectories double back, mislead us? We leave unnoticed through a back gate to make a country elsewhere. We pass the perennials and smile softly. What is our spatialized intention?

The author of four previous poetry collections—Abandon (Toronto ON: Wolsak & Wynn, 2005), feira:a poempark (Toronto ON: Wolsak & Wynn, 2008), Expeditions of a Chimæra (with Erín Moure; Toronto ON: BookThug, 2010) and We, Beasts (Wolsak & Wynn, 2012)—as well as five translations, Avasilichioaei’s work has evolved into a series of inquiries on how and where multiple sound, language, meaning and ideas overlap, shift and blend, allowing the borders to shimmy and bleed, and somehow illuminate the differences through highlighting the similarities. Her prose is incredibly fluid, even liquid, managing to easily flow and shape itself around a variety of thoughts and ideas.

Silken Shore

Lake asleep in a dusking leaf, the hair of a peasant I killed awaits to strangle me. Its ridicule on this final step feverishly summoned, the mane’s adroitness won’t pass down to my successors.

I am a flamed wheel, visible to those who have enemied me for a long while.

Somewhere, in the pleasure of the great distance, a vaporous flag ascends and descends; soldiers bloody their nakedness, hands grasping convulsively; sky, unused to incidents of this kind, blooms too soon.

We can’t expect hospitality, though we wear melancholy’s gloves. We trench in, we are the despotic fanfare of a blind platoon. We refuse sleep.

Tears march embittered through the snows. We watch them approach, soldier the urge to run off with a shadow, this night on the eve of a new flag.

Constructed in ten sections, the book includes “Itinerant Sideline,” a section composed entirely of photographs, highlighting Avasilichioaei’s engagement with the between-space, and the space that connects two opposing or conflicting spaces. A further section, “Ancillary,” is a translation of the only poems Paul Celan composed in Romanian, composed between 1945 and 1947, during Celan’s own evolution. As part of her notes at the end of the collection, Avasilichioaei writes: “[…] Paul Pessach Antschel became Paul Celan during his years in Bucharest, having first attempted to translate himself into Paul Aurel and Paul Ancel. Written in one of his adopted languages, in the desolation of the war, a war he survived in a Romanian labour camp while his family died in another, these poems are thresholds, existent and impossible, invented and possible. Limbs disarticulate and wander their syntax in the estranged language, lose control of their articulations, stir in the aftermath of an inhumane civilization.”

Poem for Mariana’s Shadow

Love’s mint grown like an angel’s finger.

You must believe: from the soil sprouts an arm twisted by silences,
a shoulder scorched by the glaze of smothered lights
a face blindfolded with the black sash of sight
a large leaded wing and a leafed one
a body wearied by rest soaked in waters.

Look how it floats amid the grasses with outstretched wings,
how it mounts the mistletoe stairs towards a glass house,
in which, with enormous steps, rambles an aimless seaweed.

You must believe this is the moment to speak to me through the tears,
to go there barefoot, be told what awaits us:
mourning drunk from a glass or mourning drunk from a palm—
and the maddened weed falling asleep hearing your answer.

Colliding in the dark the house’s windows will clamour
telling each other what they know, but without discovering
whether we love one another or not.