Saturday, June 22, 2024

Raisa Tolchinsky, Glass Jaw: Poems


[Some Things You Can’t Understand by Punching Harder]

I blushed like I had already been hit when she slipped that cotton baton
into my pocket between bells, though why was I ashamed our bodies emptied

without breaking? I rinsed blood from my hands and Coach parted the ropes.
Make him forget what you are. we never sparred the boys yet

he looked at me like the rib we had stolen was between my eyes.
Then hit so hard I heard a sound like fishing hooks in a drawstring bag

(no one really sees stars glittering above them, the dark begins at the ankles, then
zips up)—he waited to say I can’t hit a girl until I was already on the ground.

What ails you, that you flee? O Jordan, that you turn back?

Most of the boys had seen a body bleed almost everywhere a body could
and never did I see them wince: not at the tooth wedged into the mat,

or the face shifted into a Picasso painting, or a pupil pummeled red.
Still, the fight stopped quick as the moment

God returned the Red Sea only to part it again.
What are the rules for that?

A former resident of Chicago, Bologna (Italy) and New York City, where she trained as an amateur boxer, poet and current Harvard Divinity School student Raisa Tolchinsky’s full-length debut is Glass Jaw: Poems (New York NY: Persea Books, 2024), winner of the 2023 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize. Through the form and language of boxing, Tolchinsky’s Glass Jaw takes a very different approach and exploration than, say, Toronto poet Michael Holmes’ exploration through the performative language of professional wrestling in his poetry collection Parts Unknown (Toronto ON: Insomniac Press, 2004) [see my review of such here]. Tolchinsky frames her collection around amateur boxing, but utilizing language and character studies as a way through and across a journey of deep faith, attempting to find both answers, as well as the proper questions. The book opens with a reference to prayer: “I’m not sure why I still pray,” she writes, to open the first section, “or how I do it anymore. it’s like knocking on the sky: can a girl come in? I knock with my whole body: which woman is made of engine grease and hot hands?”

There is such a liveliness to the language in this collection, and the book is organized in two sections of lyrics—“DIATRIBE ON WOMEN GLADIATORS” and “HERE THIS HOLLOW SPACE”—the first of which offers a suite of poem-scenes and asides, and the second of which is structured across thirty-nine “CANTOS,” numbering down from thirty-four (with repetitions) as a way not to expand, but to return to foundations. There are echoes of Old Testament across the pieces throughout the collection, and the first section focuses on individual boxers, an array of short scenes named for and about specific women gladiators. As the poem “Delia” ends: “comparing mascaras // all clump from the sweat / and would we still do this, / if we were millionaires?” Around sly conversations around faith, these poems seek a proper foundation, perhaps, or a footing. “I hit her hard / because he said that’s how you win,” she writes, to close out “Canto 14,” a poem subtitled “I Traveled in a Spiral, I Never / Finished the Whole Permieter,” “and I hit her until I remembered / it was him who was afraid—[.]”

Tolchinsky composes short scenes that circle themselves around a central question of purpose and belief, outcome and possibly penance, writing on power structures within the self, through and between women. “Before the ring I made a life out of language,” she writes, to open “Canto 26,” a poem subtitled “Within Those Fires, There Are Souls,” “but there were places it would not reach— [.]” There is something curious about the way that these poems do write themselves around a central question that is never asked aloud, but perpetually present, as a kind of ongoingness; pushing the body to a physical limit to seek out, not a single, end-goal, but a deeper sense of being and connection. This is an utterly fascinating collection, and one that requires further study.


We’re trying to say
we’ve watched our
bodies without us
in them. Called ourselves
orphan, coiling
through the world.
In the field we played
with pebbles like
children and made
bargains with a bold
God. We thought if
we built what haunted us
a cage we could touch it
and survive


Friday, June 21, 2024

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Dawn Macdonald

Dawn Macdonald lives in Whitehorse, Yukon, where she was raised off the grid. Her poetry appears in literary journals like Grain and Nat. Brut, and also in speculative publications like Asimov’s Science Fiction and Wizards in Space. She is the author of Northerny (2024, University of Alberta Press).

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 book came out in the midst of chaos. While I was in edits, our landlords decided to sell, and we decided to not get evicted, so we scrambled to buy our house at the highest possible interest rates; then a tree fell on it. Sewage lines were being redone, so we had water outages and boil water advisories, and our backyard was excavated into a giant pit (now a giant mud field). My father received a cancer diagnosis just before Christmas, and while the prognosis was initially positive, he died unexpectedly in the week after my first book signing. I cancelled my planned readings and went into grief. It’s been a couple of months and I’m still in grief. I don’t yet know how these paired events will have changed me.

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

1.     Short attention span.

2.     Obsessed with language itself: what it does, what it doesn’t.

3.     Really bad at thinking up plots.

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’m always or never starting projects – always writing, never sure what is the start of something. Some poems have been pieced together out of fragments of other poems written over a span of years. Some were pretty much one and done. I feel affinity for the Beats with their “first thought, best thought” – but this is manifestly not always the case – so, it’s all over the place.

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’m not generally trying to write on any predetermined topic. Writing happens, themes can then be deduced. Recurring obsessions over time may create the illusion of intention? There’s a convention at the moment that poetry collections have to be “about” something and I’m still getting my head around that – if I’ve got to write 40 poems about the same thing, isn’t that an admission of failure? Shouldn’t one good poem do the trick? It doesn’t, of course, so there’s value in coming at something from many angles, but this is a point of tension for me.

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

All my readings to date have been online. Covid created some opportunities that way, as I’d never be able to attend magazine launches held in Montréal or Calgary or Vancouver, but I can show up on Zoom. I also enjoy when an online journal asks you to record a reading for them to post as an MP3. But the kind where you go to some sort of party and get up at a microphone? Don’t know – maybe we’ll find out!

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?

How the heck do words work? Can they work other ways than they usually do? Why would we tend to believe something just because it’s framed as a sentence? What’s the connection with physical stuff? What’s stuff? Do stories just trick us into thinking things make sense? ... Not sure these are “current questions” as they’ve been around for a while, but also not sure they’ve been answered.

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?

Having a way with words doesn’t make you extra-good at life. Rhetorical flourish does not equate to any special insight, to wisdom. We shouldn’t take beauty for truth. I see writers and artists as shit-disturbers – throwing ideas out there, for good or for ill. My friend posted one of those lists of “25 Books That Will Change Your Life” and I was like, “I have read most of these and it has been a real rollercoaster.”

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

I worked with the wonderful Jannie Edwards on my book, Northerny. She was marvellously accommodating about my distaste for “Track Changes” – we worked over Zoom with verbal notes. My manuscript was rough. I hadn’t had a clear sense of how a poetry collection is typically structured. By no means did I agree with or implement all of her suggestions, but we found a productive dialogue, and the book is far more readable thanks to her eye. That said, at the end of that process, with all its hyperfixation on commas and consistency, I found myself badly blocked in any new writing. I had to set myself exercises in inconsistency and non-sense-making, to regain freedom, potentiality and flow.

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

“Whatever it is about your work that keeps getting negative feedback, you should try to do that more, because it’s your one hope of originality.” I mean, with some caveats, obviously, keeping in mind it isn’t especially original to be using too many adverbs, for example – but then, maybe you could construct a poem entirely out of adverbs and see what happens? Worth a shot.

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?

Poetry is wonderfully interstitial, fits into those little gaps in the day. I’ve always got a notebook and a pen somewhere nearby, can jot things down over breakfast, fiddle with a few words at the bus stop. I’ve tried “the morning pages” and “the afternoon pages” and “the evening pages” but never found a consistent time that worked for me. So long as it’s happening, I don’t think it matters when or where.

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

Periods of stasis are okay. Some weeks (months, years) are more about taking in. Eventually it will turn and start to flow out again, quite naturally, or if not, okay – if you don’t need to, you don’t. Not sure it’s necessary to be taking an aphrodisiac to reignite poetic desire. But, in practice, poems often pop out of snippets of conversation, or the big and small events of daily life, so I think just staying alive to the world and its inhabitants.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Woodsmoke and beer.

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?

Basically everything is an influence. Because my educational background is in science, that’s a thread, and because I live in the North, the wilderness is part of daily life. On a syntactical and metrical level, hip hop is an influence – the wordplay, intertextuality, the layering of rhythms. Conversation – and sometimes mishearing someone in conversation, “wouldn’t it be a neat phrasing if they had actually said this ....” Weird phrasings on signage or on products – Nivea sells a body wash with the line, “naturally caring me moments for touchably smooth skin,” which just has so much to unpack – time as an entity offering care, care as natural yet purchasable, the purpose of “me moments” being to induce the touch of another. Could I write something as smooth, evocative, dense, and defying of literal sense?

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

All of them? Haha I am on a bit of a mission to read all the books. Accordingly, have been obsessed with anthologies. I was very fortunate as a teenager to stumble across a second-hand copy of The New American Poetry 1945-1960 (edited by Donald Allen) which absolutely blew my mind – poetry can do this? The Beats, the New York School – I’d had no idea. Those guys (mostly guys) are still a big influence. Frank O’Hara’s “I do this I do that” poems, Kenneth Koch’s humour and play, Ginsberg’s long-line chattiness. Also a big fan of A.R. Ammons, who has a sciencey sort of eye and who wrote a book-length poem about garbage, which speaks to me as an inveterate scrounger and lover of organic messiness. Alice Notley, who goes big on the page and claims never to revise. In prose, I have so much respect for Percival Everett, whose most recent novel James is very clever about dialect. I could go on and on.

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

To (mis?)-quote P.G. Wodehouse, “It is my fervent hope that the remainder of my days shall be one round of unending monotony.”

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?

My day job is in Institutional Research, which is a bit like market research and/or data analysis. I do a fair bit of survey design, which trains you to write clear and concise questions that are not too susceptible to divergent interpretations. I’ve done manual transcription of focus group recordings, which is a revelation in terms of learning how people really speak (tip: not in sentences). I do a bit of coding in R and SQL, another kind of pithy and precise communication style. But my original career goal was physicist. I wanted to find the Grand Unified Theory. I did my undergraduate in applied mathematics with a theoretical physics concentration, but I’m a physics grad-school dropout, so that’s the road not taken.

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

Not sure I ever thought of it as being opposed to doing anything else! I have to have a day-job, and I definitely have hobbies (mostly knitting and running around in the woods, not at the same time because you should never run with knitting needles). A notebook is easy to carry around and writing fits in. Maybe that’s the answer – because writing is completely portable and fits into very small spaces and bits of time.

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

Book: Nature Poem by Tommy Pico.

Film: Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is my favorite film to say is my favorite film, but, I will probably never watch it again – it’s a one-time experience. Still, pretty great.

19 - What are you currently working on?

Ugh. I am very much in a state of grief. I am writing around that but wouldn’t be able to say I’m working on anything there. It’s rough and raw and it’s dominating me in a way that’s outside of artistry. We’ll see.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Thursday, June 20, 2024

Alex Cuff, Common Amnesias


The road to becoming less disgusting is a long one but doable
Is what my Tinder profile says
I’m on the toilet swiping left and right
I schedule an event in my Google Calendar for October
Hello from March things aren’t so great
I try to write a poem and am like oh hi mom and dad
All my poems are about a shame so deep I didn’t shit for two weeks in
The field is dead or built over or really far away or too expensive or
    there’s not enough time
I give myself my first enema (“DESIRE”)

The full-length poetry debut by Brooklyn poet and No, Dear cofounding editor Alex Cuff, following Family, A Natural Wonder (Reality Beach, 2017) and I Try Out A Sentence to See Whether I Believe (Ghost Proposal, 2020), is Common Amnesias (Brooklyn NY: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2024). Set in four poem-sections—“Family, A Natural Wonder,” “How Are Your Bowels?,” “Even Robocop Dreams of His Assassins” and “I Try Out a Sentence to See Whether I Believe”—the quartered accumulations that make up Common Amnesias document a cluster of first-person statements, clarifications, declarations and explorations, composed as monologues against the potential for disappearing completely. “I write sentences while standing / Because I have sprayed dissolved magnesium / All over my lower body,” part of the second section writes. The poems are loose, fragmented, intimate, declarative and ragged, declaring themselves, however uncertain, as a point of being. “I dream the Guggenheim Museum drifts down the East River on a barge / Followed by the 6th Avenue Jefferson branch of the library,” she writes, as part of the opening sequence, “The subject of my anxiety shifts and lands on what is most socially palpable / I take the advice of several friends who say it is ok to not get out of bed // The contradiction of my own brain    take it easy girl    get the fuck off the floor [.]”

I have time
I eat a burrito at the Parade Grounds
Go to the dollar store
Find a glass bowl with a lid for school lunches
I spend the month abstaining
Abstain from alcohol in July
Abstain from alcohol for most of July
I purchase a blue translucent plastic spray bottle from Duane Reade
I make this purchase with great hope and promise
Spray my thighs in dissolved magnesium
I infuse herbs and drink tea
Tulsi & wood betony
Yellow dock & fennel
Burdock & prickly ash
I have time on my hands
I lose ground and wrestle
I mistake privilege for symptoms
I mistake the outside for the inside (“How Are Your Bowels?”)

I’m fascinated by Cuff’s curious accumulations and linguistic twirls and twists, curlicues of sound, texture and meaning in lovely, small phrase-gestures, offering intimate fractures and confession. There is something about Alex Cuff’s work that feels closer to work produced through Futurepoem, somehow, than with ugly duckling (although perhaps my perception, from this geographic distance, may be flawed); it is through the ongoing and fragmented lyric narrative fracture that distracts, I suppose, one that holds despite every suggestion that it probably shouldn’t. As the second poem-section ponders: “I meditate on the relationship between constipation and fear of a lover’s / fear of anal [.]” Or, as she includes in the final sequence:

I read a story about a man who struggles to support his consumptive wife
    and her long ropes of hair by digging graves and collecting scrap metal.
I thought it was a bad story but find myself wondering where I can get a
    wife with long ropes of hair.
Consumptive or not everyone I know is dying.
I cross dye things green from my to-do list.
I am in the produce aisle at Key Food.
I am hushed by a man who has his hands deep in the bananas.
I make synaptic space for future threats.
I see sap in the trees so I tap them.