Friday, June 25, 2010

12 or 20 questions: with Mark Goldstein

Tracelanguage: A Shared Breath, Mark Goldstein's most recent book of poems, was published by BookThug in Spring 2010. It transtranslates poet Paul Celan's seminal 1967 work, “Atemwende.”

In 2008, BookThug issued Goldstein's first book, After Rilke: To Forget You Sang, a series of homophonic translations based on Rilke’s “The Voices.” Accompanying these translations are a set of letters Goldstein wrote in homage to the late American poet, Jack Spicer.
Last fall, Goldstein's Beautiful Outlaw imprint published Handwerk, a slip-cased set of six chapbooks by poets Phil Hall, Erin Moure, Oana Avasilichioaei, Angela Carr, Jay MillAr, and Goldstein. Recently, he facilitated a course on Transtranslation at the Toronto New School of Writing.
He lives in Cabbagetown, Toronto.

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 was my membership card.

After Rilke was my first trade edition. I originally conceived it as a chapbook until Jay MillAr at BookThug added it to his Spring 2008 list and boosted its print run from 100 to 300 copies. That changed the nature of the book for me and I ended up incorporating a series of Spicer-esque letters throughout the text that added a vital counterpoint to the poems.

Tracelanguage feels like my first proper book because of its scope. It is comprised of nearly one hundred poems compared to the ten poems of “After Rilke.”

That said, “After Rilke” and “Tracelanguage” speak to one another. They’re both transtranslations. I employed a similar methodology when writing both books, although, “Tracelanguage” is elegiac whereas “After Rilke” is more comedic.

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

Michael Gelman, an inspirational high school English teacher, led me to poetry. My Grade 10 reading list at Thornlea S.S. included e. e. cummings, Leonard Cohen, Michael Ondaatje, Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, Josef Conrad and Milan Kunderacummings, “Buffalo Bill’s/ Defunct,” was my way in.

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?

Each project is different. “Tracelanguage” came out of a careful reading and rewriting of Paul Celan’s “Atemwende.” I had a deep need to know that work intimately. I circled around it for three or four years, building up the resolve to take it on. Even as I began writing, I kept telling myself, “Only this poem, just this one poem under hand.” Spicer’s adage – “Write without looking back” – kept me going. Some poems or sections came quickly while others took time. The total draft-manuscript is over 2,500 pages.

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?

The book is my medium. The poem and the book are one, as are word and letter. One poem extracted from my book is not the book. I hate to lapse into cliché but the book really is greater than the sum of all its parts. In addition, with “Tracelanguage,” I knew I was writing a serial poem because in “Atemwende” there are six cycles.

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

I enjoy them but they can be distracting. I agree with Philip Levine who said that the trouble with public reading is the return to the desk – there’s no applause.

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?

Theory is a drag unless it’s useful. Burroughs’ theory of the cut-up is useful because it points us toward a course of action in our writing. The cut-up pushed me to look at other approaches and methodologies: Oulipo; Bernadette Mayer’s Poetry Workshop; Ronald Johnson’s “Radios” (Erasure); and Zukofsky’s “Catullus” which is the granddaddy of post-modern homophonic translation.

Sadly, the bulk of what I hear at poetry readings isn’t poetry at all. It’s stripped of music. It’s blocks of narrative that are warm-ups for the unread novels of the future. Poetry can’t live without a rhythmic throughline. It’s the sounds of words that delight the ear, not their meanings. Meaning is an after effect of the poem. It’s not something in the control of the author.

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?

Lyn Hejinian said there’s a revolution going on in poetry over the past 30 years. And the affect has been to expand the definition of what poetry is. Without expanding that definition, literature and culture will be left with a number of irrelevant models of poetry as objects of aesthetic reverie but of no relevance to thought or experience or contemporary living.

So our role is to keep the culture alive – create pockets of light amid the malaise and apathy.

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

The editor is essential to my work.

Once the work is written, the poet is dismissed, no longer privy to the poem’s totality. Besides, the poem doesn’t need me. The writer is a kind of midwife: If I don’t deliver the work, someone else will. Another writer might not create an identical work but the works we need and the works we’ll reach for in a time of crisis will be written.

By the time I’m “finished” a work, I’m too close to it. I can’t see it so I rely on a small, trusted group to read the work and suggest changes. Then I look to the poem and see what it requires. I accept some of these changes while I dismiss others. But, ultimately, it’s up to the poem.

And I don’t find the editing part of the process difficult. I find it educational.

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

LISTEN to the sound that it makes -- Pound

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?

Have I moved between genres? Outside of journaling and note taking, my work has been exclusively in the poem. Many of my poems were born in my journals. So are my poems journals? Are my journals poems?

Reading is as important to my work as writing. A book is a container full of words. If there are words that I find useful or attractive, I take them and bring them into my poems. As I mentioned earlier, “Tracelanguage” is my reading/re-writing of a work by Paul Celan and yet it is neither “Atemwende” itself nor a pure translation. What is it? Hence the subtitle, “A Shared Breath.”

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?

Three pages every morning, by hand, whether I want to or not, as soon as I wake up. I’ve maintained this practice since 2001. It’s put me in touch with the gestation of a work. At this time of day, I’m more open and less controlling of the word on the page.

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

Books. The Bruce Trail. Friends. Pain.

I have faith in not trying to create. Ebb and flow. It’s important to live. To fill up, to edify myself, so I have something to bring back to the work.

I don’t know if I believe in writer’s block. Just get your ass in the chair.

13 - If there was a fire, what's the first thing you'd grab?

A bucket of 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?

All of the above influence me.

Right now, I’m exploring the works of Lucian Freud, Steve Reich, Erik Satie, Mummon (commentaries) and Paul Celan.

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

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

Write a screenplay with my partner.

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?

For the first 15 years of my life, I lived by drawing and making art. For the next 15, I worked as a professional musician. And for the past 10, I’ve dedicated myself to literature. All are one, inseparable. I see myself moving between them. Coming back to art and to music and to the written word, again and again.

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

Fear. Pain. Loneliness. Joy. Loss.

I feel a need to respond to the works that have shaped my mind and my life. As my reading deepened, I felt compelled to reply. The thing that drives me is a total awareness that this is my one trip through.

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

Film: This past winter I watched a documentary called, The Story of Dick Proenneke. Dick lived alone in the wilds of Alaska, for the last 30 years of his life. Luckily for us, he brought along a camera and filmed himself homesteading.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’m recharging after having written “Tracelanguage.” I have three manuscripts near completion and I’m getting ready to return to these works. But first, time for living.

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