Friday, June 11, 2021

Muriel Leung, IMAGINE US, THE SWARM

 

I wanted to write a book about Orpheus and
Eurydice, how they lived and died and died again.

How hellish, discovering that the journey was not
enough, even at its end, that impulse to look back,
which is like admitting grief is a form of self-sabotage.
 

 

                        …………………

                        ………………… 

                        …………………

And then she was ash.

                        …………………

                                                            (“THIS IS TO LIVE SEVERAL LIVES”)

Southern California poet and editor Muriel Leung’s [see her ’12 or 20 questions’ interview here] second full-length collection is IMAGINE US, THE SWARM (New York NY: Nightboat Books, 2021), following her debut, Bone Confetti (Las Cruces NM: Noemi Press 2016). IMAGINE US, THE SWARM is a suite of seven poem-sections constructed out of long lines, fragments, accumulation and space on the page to, as Kazim Ali suggests in his blurb on the back cover, “confront loneliness, silence, and death.” Leung writes out how stories are remembered, and told; and how stories tend to shift over time, blending and even twisting details. “[.]…….. a story which / begins with…….. / a death and ends…… / ……with a study…… / of a life of labor…… / …….done with such / seeming ease [.]” The lyric here is expansive, and Leung utilizes the pause, and the halt; writing out moments and movements of memory and hum, grief and the metaphor of bees. “Once, when I was very, very young,” she writes, to open the collection, “I studied the curious lives of bees // their steadfast and synchronous labor // thinking of what it means / to be at once [a colony] and [alone].” From there, Leung writes of solitude and the swarm, and of what the collective might be capable of, as well as the failures that occur from within. Referencing her father in the opening section, she writes: “I set out to write a book about [    ] but it was about [    ] instead. After he died, [    ] was all that was left.” Two pages further, she offers: “To write a book is to write into a future and I am not ready.”

She writes of family and family histories, death and loss, and enduring years of racism, writing through an ongoing sequence of acts of difficult histories, resistance, survival and support. She writes of her father’s cancer, and her mother’s cancer, and of her grandfather. She writes of the trauma of her father’s escape from China and the difficulties he suffered even long after he landed in the United States. In an interview posted March 22, 2021, conducted by Julie Leung for The Sundress Blog, Leung responds: “The myth of my father’s migration, of my grandfather’s before him. The myth of celestial bodies. The myth of Greek poets who search the depths of hell for their love, losing them once again. One definition of a myth can be that it is a story that is not concerned with a truth grounded in realism but that communicate an emotional lesson. What did I learn? My familial history is barbed and contains a legacy of pain. On occasion, someone has tried to reverse it. Did it work? I am asking.” As part of the second section, she writes:

[conclusive statements]

What my father had was Stage IV pancreatic cancer, discovered at the late stage of its development. Confused for an ulcer, he had put it off, thinking it was his body’s knotted revenge for years of abuse. He had survived arrest once, caught in the waters while swimming to Hong Kong where he had hoped to board a plane with his sister to the U.S. On a subway platform late one night, on the way home from work, he was mugged and stabbed in the stomach with a pocketknife—that too, he survived. It came as no surprise then that the earliest signs would register as anything but its awful truth. How the proliferation of the years can wear on a body. Unraveling towards the end of his life, he began to look like the assemblage of his many parts. He was very much afraid. In collecting him, I saw what I knew was a strange biology that willed its way across several histories without subjecthood or nation. And this: the lone cancerous cell glows the way the busiest terminal of a city fills with people in the hour of its utmost vitality.

Leung writes the structure of the swarm and the suggestion of bees very different than, say, the poet-deliberations on and around bees by some of her contemporaries, whether Toronto poet Andy Weaver’s debut, Were the Bees (Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 2005) [see my review of such here] or Vancouver poet Renée Sarojini Saklikar’s second full-length collection, a poetic collaboration with scientist Mark Winston, their Listening to the Bees (Gibsons BC: Nightwood Editions, 2018). Leung’s notion of the community/swarm might be closer to New York poet Tonya M. Foster’s full-length debut, A Swarm of Bees in High Court (Brooklyn NY: Belladonna, 2015) [see my review of such here]. “I think it’s funny that the book is not about bees at all,” she writes, as part of the opening piece. As part of the poem/section “LIFE OF A DROWNING,” she writes: “I kiss the flooding and it kisses me back. Grief pours through me like a sieve. Its aftermath of sand and salt / debris grows heavy at the banks. I kiss that too. […] What does it mean that our lungs are 90 percent water, and yet, we are capsized every time?”

the unkindness of being :: when I feel my feeling warped

in the lining of a thickening wall :: the triumph of water corroding the frame

 

femme :: a sickle :: copper flesh inside a thorn :: within the writing

of what it means to be a body :: tired of being a body

(“I MARVEL AT THE NOISES A MORE PERFECT VENGEANCE MAKES”)

IMAGINE US, THE SWARM is set in five extended poem-sections—“THIS IS TO LIVE SEVERAL LIVES,” “THE PLURAL CIRCUITS OF TELL,” “A CAREFUL LIST OF ALL MY FAILURES,” “LIFE OF A DROWNING,” “DEAR INTIMACY OF [THEORY],” “I MARVEL AT THE NOISES A MORE PERFECT VENGEANCE MAKES” and “WHEN I IMAGINE ALL THE POSSIBILITIES OF THE SWARM”—that are each composed as extended thoughts into a graceful and meditative lyric on language, family and belonging. “To bend so far back,” she writes, as part of “A CAREFUL LIST OF ALL MY FAILURES,” “my spine becomes another flag. Of assimilable colors. // And I am not even legible to myself. Cannot not even English my way out.” Further on in the same poem, she writes: “in a nation of proximity and degree / what is my likeness to a thumb? / the brutal texture of my race beside another? // the history of my particulars / only a fraction of a tower [.]” Leung writes moments small and large, unique gestures that stream across a sequence of white spaces. “One winter,” she writes, to open “LIFE OF A DROWNING,” “I stepped out of my house and planted my body in a patch of white snow. I wanted to know / what it would be like to be both anvil and a green shoot. I slept there. I forged a surrender in the ground. // Though I lived, the snow grew inside me in the years to come.” There are such stunning and striking fragments in this collection, stitched together brilliantly as both a series and sequence of threads, and a quilt of patchwork lyric, held together through the strength of each fragment and the connections between them. She writes of ghosts, both familial and otherwise, echoes that can’t help but impact and influence, including the penultimate section, which she describes in her notes as “an ekphrasic work based after Park Chan-wook’s Lady Vengeance (2005). Geum-Ja is the name of the female protagonist who was falsely imprisoned for 13 years after a child murderer, who also happened to be her former teacher, forced her to confess to a crime she did not commit.” The structural accomplishments in this collection are quite stunning, as she utilizes a variety of lyric shapes and forms, long lines and fragments, to put together a book-length suite on loss and love, family and story, and what might be possible to learn from all that has come before. This is a remarkable book.

There is no joy in the after.

Like everything else, the film also ends.

Geum-Ja places her face inside a tofu block.

Her daughter, witness to this long cord of shame.

The deed is done, but life goes on.

The cart of loss proceeds ahead, unthrwarted by the cause.

Nothing to stuff the mouth of its redemption cry.

A ghost is still a ghost even when it finds its everlasting body. (“I MARVEL AT THE NOISES A MORE PERFECT VENGEANCE MAKES”)

 

Thursday, June 10, 2021

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Lindsay Hunter

Lindsay Hunter is the co-founder and co-host of the groundbreaking Quickies! reading series, an event that focused on flash fiction. Her first book, Daddy’s, a collection of flash fiction, was published in 2010 by featherproof books, a boutique press in Chicago. Her second collection, DON’T KISS ME, was published by FSG Originals in 2013 and was named one of Amazon’s 10 Best Books of the Year: Short Stories. Her first novel, Ugly Girls, was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in November 2014. The Huffington Post called it “a story that hits a note that’s been missing from the chorus of existing feminist literature.” Her latest novel, Eat Only When You’re Hungry, was a finalist for the 2017 Chicago Review of Books Fiction Award and a 2017 NPR Great Read.

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 changed my life in that it felt like someone was taking me seriously, and that I had a physical object representing the work I had completed, and I was thus allowed to call myself a capital-W Writer. My most recent work is quite different in that it's a novel, but it's similar in that writing is a continuous reclaiming of one's voice. Of allowing yourself to grow but still attempting to write as yourself. 

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

I actually wrote poetry at first! My mentor in undergrad was a poet and that's largely what I wrote and read and studied. I considered myself a poet and then I'd sneak off to work on a shitty novel. I was rejected by eight (8!) grad schools I applied to. I started taking fiction classes at night and trying to write stories. Then I found a grad program that didn't make you say what sort of writer you were, because in truth many writers write all of it! And some of my favorite novels were written by poets.

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 usually just start a project. I relate it to running, or any sort of exercise, in that if you look at all the miles you're supposed to run or minutes you've blocked out to work out, it can feel daunting and impossible and your brain starts to convince you that there's no point in starting, that you could just make yourself a nest of blankets and read instead. But if you just take that first step, then you've started. You're already in it. So I tend to just force my fingers to start moving across the keyboard. Sometimes I start with an idea I've been tossing around in my head (I'm a mom of three little ones, so a lot of writing gets done in my head so I'm ready to go when I have time to sit down at my desk), and sometimes it's a first sentence or an image I'm curious about. Many of the things I've published have been first or second drafts. I don't generally outline or take notes. But! I will also say the process is different, for me, for each book. The last book I wrote was like a huge shapeshifting puzzle that I continually reassembled. The one I'm working on now is like a crazy quilt.

4 - Where does a work of prose 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?

Well, that's different for each book. Ugly Girls and Eat Only When You're Hungry I wrote in chronological order. The two most recent novels I've been working on are quite different. The current one, as I said, is like a crazy quilt. You only see the whole thing if you look at each little piece. So it jumps around in time and place and character. The one just previous is reverse-chronological for one character and chronological for all the rest. But yes, I know I'm working on a book from the very beginning. I tend to treat each "chapter" like its own piece of flash fiction. It makes it doable and fun for me.

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

Oh, I LOVE doing readings. I didn't used to! I got flop sweat and nausea at my very first public reading. I kept thinking, why do they want to hear me? I'm just a rube! But I happened to do that reading with Peter Markus, who blew my mind when he said he loved to read his work. I realized I could write something that felt fun to say, and I started looking at readings as performances. Why bore your audience to death? Why not make it fun, meaningful? I co-hosted a reading series for a while with the hopes that it would help more writers have fun reading their work. Now I host a podcast with the same intention.

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 think, always, my work deals with loneliness, and with trying to show the humanity where you may not expect it. I wonder about this myself, because in person I am a very chipper, happy idiot, but my writing tends to be dark, even grotesque. I have been looking for ways to include grace, even at the sentence level, in everything I write.

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?

The writer is essential to our culture, to society, to humanity. I can't think how often I've thought, if only so and so read more (okay, I am talking about Trump and his ilk). Reading leads to empathy, to curiosity, to knowledge, to grace. Those are in short supply, but thankfully there's a solution. READ.

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

Essential! Yes, it can be awkward to be shown areas where you've biffed it, or to be told "yeah, no, do this over," but I've been blessed to work with wonderful, smart editors whom I trusted, and who stood up for the writer I am and the work I was making.

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

"The first draft is just you telling yourself the story." I read that in Alexander Chee's How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. And, "You need to stet more." That was from my wonderful editor at FSG, Emily Bell (who's now at Zando), when she felt that my voice was being trampled by the copy editor. A wonderful reminder to reclaim my voice.

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

Well, it's not "easy," but I definitely use my flash fiction background as I write novels. Flash fiction has kept me connected to the immediacy in what I'm writing, and has helped me stay attuned to when what I'm writing just isn't doing it. I use the constraint of flash fiction (word count, mainly) to reach my daily goals. And my flash fiction background has helped me consider what world, and what slice of that world, I want to present. And! It's fun to write that way. To focus intensely on what I'm working on in that small amount of time I have in the day, to select my words carefully, to feel like what I'm doing is enough.

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?

Since we're in a pandemic and I'm a parent of three little ones, I don't have as much time as I used to. I get maybe six hours a week (groan), and those hours are generally during nap/quiet time for my kids. But that means I've had to adjust my goals and yet still complete them like the beast I know I am. I have a word count goal I set for myself each time I sit down at the desk, and I always meet or exceed that goal. As a project goes along I'll start setting longer goals for myself, like when I'm going to do a big revision or when I'm going to send it to my agent. I always treat it like work; I always take it seriously. I know it will one day be a book I'm proud of.

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

Constraints! I give myself a constraint, like my word count goal or a timed writing session or even a prompt, like "write what this character's living room looks like." If I focus on the constraint, something concrete and achievable, then that feeling of being blocked kind of fades into the background.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

I'm from Central Florida, so I'd have to say it's the scent of orange blossoms carried on a hot blast of exhaust.

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?

I wrote Ugly Girls as a response to the movie Drive (and also as a response to the book Ravens by George Dawes Green). I don't generally listen to music as I write, but when I'm revising, it's essential. Sometimes I'll hear a song as I'm just living my life and I'll know there's a story or a chapter I can write just because I heard that song.

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

Anne Tyler is an example of how something can be sad and dark but still filled with grace.

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

I'd love to write a screenplay! I've attempted it a few times but my brain is so wired to the page that it's hard to write something that'll be onscreen. One day...

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 wanted to be an actress! I studied theater in high school and my freshman year of college and I studied it at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute before realizing what I truly loved and wanted to do was to make people feel, and I could do that a whole lot better with my writing. But I think when I read my work in front of an audience, I'm combining the two. Recently, though, I've decided I would have made a great FBI agent.

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

I've been writing since I could write. It comes so naturally to me and so obviously what I was meant to do that I can't believe it's not an inherent part of every human's life. Like, what? You don't write? Really?

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

Leave the World Behind, by Rumaan Alam for the book and The Wolf of Snow Hollow for the film.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I'm working on a new novel! It's this idea I have that life is actually not chronological, that time is a collage of all other times, and that is especially true after a traumatic event. It's about a murder, and motherhood, and young love, and identity. 

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Wednesday, June 09, 2021

Andreae Callanan, the debt

 

Infinity dress

The infinity dress was a lie, and we all bought it.
A circle skirt of quivering, cool silk jersey, two

broad straps plenty long to drape over shoulders,
stretch across breasts, wind around and around

the waist and tie up in a tight, bright bow.
A little something nice to take us

from boardroom to ballroom to bedroom.
One cocoon to metamorphose any woman

into Marilyn on Monday and Farrah on Friday,
Helen on holidays and at the annual regatta,

her face launching a hundred rowboats. A dozen
cunning ways to be the bride’s best friend, a dozen

more to stand out or blend. But the joke
was on us: now we know how fifteen

feet of strap gets twisted and twisted
until the dress is not a dress at all, but

just enough rope.

St. John’s, Newfoundland poet Andreae Callanan’s full-length poetry debut is the debt (Windsor ON: Biblioasis, 2021), a collection of very sharp narrative lyrics centred around Newfoundland geography and history, colonialism and empire, being and industry. “She knits with a speed that seems / the stuff of cartoons: heroic, impossible.” she writes, to close the poem “Winter”: “But we are young, and our hands / are very small.” Callanan writes of cod fishing, Bond Street, radio whispers, classic film and the distance between “here” and what the television offers, such as MuchMusic’s Electric Circus. The distances between such are enormous, and Callanan’s narrator offers numerous portraits of now and then, writing poems as portraits and reminiscences; of what she sees, and of what she knows, and clearly remembers.

“We take care of the things that bear our names.” she writes, as part of the extended “Crown,” “We take care of our houses, cheques. Our children. / The rest is someone else’s business. What / falls outside the fence line—beyond the rock / walls, silvering softwood posts, the slipknot- / secured gates—that’s called Crown land.” The bulk of the poems included in this collection are short, lyric narratives but for the longer sequence “Crown,” a piece that works prose sections against line-breaks, composed after the prompt, seemingly, from Charter to Sir Walter Raleigh: 1584 by Queen Elizabeth I, as read to “an assembled crowed in St. John’s, Newfoundland, 1983” by Prince Charles: “[We grant our trusty and wellbeloved servant … free liberty and license …] to discover, search, find out and view such remote, heathen, and barbarous lands, countries, and territories [as are] not actually possessed by any Christian prince or people.” Callanan writes of the distances between rural and urban Newfoundlanders, and of accents, the loss of the fish and of what colonialism looks like, from the contemporary ground. She writes, lovingly, of Newfoundland, and all its “wild and weedy things,” and how she and her contemporaries acted in their youth.

Callanan writes of what is owed, and a debt to the place itself. Or, as the title poem offers: “We are all debtors here, beholden / to this jagged place for every lungful / of spruce-laden salted air, each slap / of ocean blasting rock and boat, dock / and ankle. Each berry-bucket filled / begs something in return. I pay / my dues with words: a no to harm, a yes / to harder work. I pay my dues in placards, / ballots, chants, in reckoning.”

“This fireplace mantel,” she writes as part of the poem “Mantel,” “is a white expanse against a wall as pink / as the smooth inside of a souvenir / seashell.” In the debt, Callanan writes a locale simultaneously centred and far removed from the world. Her poems write of tangible, physical places and objects, composing scenes that both look acknowledge where she stands as well as staring off into that distance. Really, in many ways, this collection is an articulation of that complicated relationship between home and away, writing her familiar and immediate, as well as what might be possible beyond the horizon.