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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Language Matters: Interviews with 22 Quebec Poets, eds. Carolyn Marie Souaid and Endre Farkas



God knows the creative process is a mystery. To make something out of nothing, to see a world in a blank page, to hear imagined people speak, to touch things that aren’t there, to taste what is not yet baked, to speak volumes or write an image is something to wonder at, something awesome to behold. Yet these are the things that artists do every day. These are the tasks, pleasures and pains that artists, including poets, undertake. Transmitters of acts of the imagination, poets use language to make their unique works of art. But how do they do this?
            This is one of the many questions we asked Quebec’s English-language poets over the four-year lifespan of the online literary magazine that we, along with Elias Letelier, founded on June 24, 2009, Quebec’s Fête Nationale. We were curious about their process but we also wondered whether living in Quebec and writing in the language of “les autres” meant anything aesthetically, socially, culturally and politically. We had a poetic and political agenda. Poetry Quebec, or PQ, was a conscious and deliberate nod (and wink) to Quebec’s separatist party, the Parti Québécois. We wanted through our tongue-in-cheek name and motto, “Je me sousviens,” to signal that Quebec’s English-language poets are Quebec poets who were, are and will be here to remember and be remembered. The name and motto were also a manifesto of our engagement.

There is something very familiar in the framing of the new collection Language Matters: Interviews with 22 QuebecPoets, eds. Carolyn Marie Souaid and Endre Farkas (Winnipeg MB: Signature Editions, 2013). The press release begins:

Is writing in English in Quebec a political act? An act of survival? An act of defiance? An act of futility? An act of celebration? For answers to these questions, look no further than Language Matters, a series of candid interviews with some of Quebec’s – Canada’s – most interesting and innovative poets, which launched on Tuesday, September 10, 2013. These are poets who write in the dominant language of North America, but are the linguistic minority in a francophone culture – a minority within a minority. Living in the birthplace of Canadian poetry that gave rise to A.M. Klein, F.R. Scott, Louis Dudek, Irving Layton and Leonard Cohen, how do these poets view themselves and their already marginalized art?

There is something familiar here, and even curious: but for the date mentioned within, this blurb could easily be included on the back cover of a similar collection of essays twenty, or even forty years earlier. Have the questions really not changed during that period (or for that matter, the poets one might cite as precursors?)? As someone who grew up just on the other side of the Quebec border, I’ve a curiosity about such questions of landscape and geography, and wonder if there should be further questions in other regions that should also be repeated to the writers within, to allow a different perspective on other types of geographies, their politics, language and considerations of local space. Over the years, co-editor Endre Farkas has worked tirelessly to promote, encourage and explore English-language poetry in Montreal specifically and Quebec and the rest of Canada generally, through his work as one of the original Vehicule Poets in the 1970s (the group that helped give rise to Vehicule Press, where he was one of the founding editors) to later founding The Muses’ Company in 1980, to editing, co-editing and/or contributing to anthologies such as 10 Montreal Poets at the Cegeps (Montreal QC: Delta, 1975), Montreal English Poetry of the Seventies (Montreal QC: Vehicule press, 1977), Vehicule Poets (Montreal QC: Maker Press, 1979), CrossCut: Contemporary English Quebec Poetry (Vehicule Press, 1982), Canadian Poetry Now (Toronto ON: Anansi, 1984), Voix Off (Toronto ON: Guernica, 1985), The Other Language: English Poetry of Montreal (The Muses’ Co., 1989) and Quebec Suite: Poems for and about Quebec (Winnipeg MB: The Muses’ Co., 1998). Farkas has spent decades working as an English-language poet in a geography and political landscape where he has been very much part of the minority, and through such, his efforts have allowed certain writers to become known and even flourish where they might not have otherwise had the same opportunities. But the question of the book becomes: have the questions one poses to writers in such a landscape really not changed over the years? It’s as though the framing of the collection doesn’t give nearly enough credit to the scope of the book’s content, and the engagement each author has with questions goes far beyond those suggested on the cover. When asked “Would you say that writing in English in Quebec [is] a political act?” in her interview, Erin Moure answers:

Not necessarily. Writing is always a political act, of course. Writing in English is not devoid of politics, for sure, in terms of the conditions of production and reception for that hegemonic language in the world. Writing in English in Quebec is also subject to conditions of writing in a society that speaks French. So there are political consequences, and social consequences, to writing in English in Quebec. Yet the act of writing in English, picking up a pen and writing, is not necessarily a “political act” for me, who grew up in English in Alberta. The act of writing in English and including French directly in the poem is a political act, though. The act of writing and speaking in Galician is a political act.

Originally conducted to be posted on their online Poetry Quebec (a website that arrived with much enthusiasm, but seems to have disappeared), the collection includes a selection of a series of interviews conducted over four years with poets Stephanie Bolster, Mark Abley, Erin Moure, David McGimpsey, Mary di Michele, Gabe Foreman, Catherine Kidd, Richard Sommer, Maxianne Berger, Steve Luxton, Robyn Sarah, Mahamud Siad Togane, Susan Gillis, Brian Campbell, Charlotte Hussey, kaie kellough, Moe Clark, Jason Camlot, Gillian Sze and Angela Leuck as well as interviews with the editors, Farkas and Souaid, themselves. The interviews (each including a poem or two by the interviewed poet) connect through a common concern with the intricacies of language (including multiple languages), and each speak of their engagements with Quebec writing, writers and the immediate landscapes in which they live. As Susan Gillis says in the space of her interview, “Living in English in Quebec is a political act.” She continues:

History and culture are living continuities. Writing and working and living in a minority language create an active engagement with those living continuities, a kind of claim-staking: Look, here’s my little corner of history and culture, alive and well and kicking. Not threatening, just being. I suppose for some Quebec nationalists, any other culture’s activity is threatening? Or the very notion of “just being” is false? I don’t see my work or myself that way, but that doesn’t mean others might not.

Originally from Calgary, Montreal-based “word-sound systemizer” kaie kellough provides an interesting perspective:

for an english writer, provincial boundaries dissolve. the nice thing abt writing & performing is that it can travel. if english writers were restricted to publishing & presenting their works in québec alone, then i might feel that working in english is a political act. but english writers can publish throughout north america: the markets for our work are much larger than the markets for french work. when my first book was published, it was launched in vancouver, ottawa, toronto, and montréal. further, i was eventually invited to read across the country - in halifax, calgary, gabriola (bc), saskatooooon, etc. [...] a french-language poet might get to launch a first volume in montréal, ottawa, and québec city, if lucky.

What does it mean to be an English-language Montreal writer, or more broadly, an English-language writer in Quebec? For some the question is essential, and for others, the question is a curiosity, nearly in passing. For some writers, these questions might be entirely irrelevant to the ways in which they write. Thanks to editors Farkas and Souaid, the question allows the answers to showcase the ways in which the landscape has shifted over the years, and just how much has remained the same. I’d be curious to hear others respond to these questions, such as Montreal-based writers Sina Queyras, Jon Paul Fiorentino and SusanElmslie, as well as some of the younger writers slowly emerging in the city, such as Helen Hajnoczky and Kirya Marchand. This is very much a collection built originally not as a book, but as a series of online one-offs which, when collected, might show the occasional gap or two. One hopes that further work, and/or a second volume might be down the road?

Monday, December 30, 2013

(another) very short story;



Temporal linearity, as we know it, doesn’t apply to memory. A song that slips into your head is often a gesture, announcing that the song will soon surface. Office background, car radio or one of your television shows: it’s more common than you’d think. You are remembering a song that you have yet to hear.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Lynn Davies

Lynn Davies is the author of three collections of poetry, including The Bridge That Carries the Road, shortlisted for a Governor General’s Award and the Gerald Lampert Award, Where Sound Pools, and most recently, how the gods pour tea. Her poems have also appeared in numerous anthologies, been broadcast on CBC Radio, and translated into French and Spanish. She lives in Fredericton and works part time in an independent bookstore. 

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

Before my first book, my sense of audience was limited to friends, family, other local writers, and the occasional stranger. When The Bridge That Carries the Road was published, a larger audience seemed possible thanks to a publisher willing to risk taking on a new writer. Well, we all know that poetry enjoys a small audience, but there’s something about the poems printed and bound between two covers and shipped to bookstores that turns the writing into a social activity. It becomes real in a physical way. As for my most recent book - it took just as long to write (ten years) as the first one but I sense a bit more confidence.
 
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I began as a freelance writer for magazines and newspapers. This was a wonderful place for me to start - interviews got me out into the world, and I learned about editors and deadlines. I also started to write short stories, and I attempted a novel.  But when my children were born, my writing time dwindled and I began to write little pieces in the little bits of time available to me. That’s how I began writing poems. But poetry first found me when I was a child, when my mother read and recited poems to me, often by R.L. Stevenson.

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?

The writing process is never exactly the same for me. Some pieces do come quickly but most of the time, writing is a lot of rewriting. My initial drafts are written in pencil on paper - I sense connections better through handwriting. It takes me many drafts over a period of months or years to arrive at what I think might be the final version.

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?
A poem might begin in a sound, a phrase, an image, an idea, a piece of music, an incident, a story. For me, poems can begin anywhere, anytime. I write poems until the pile is high enough to consider arranging them into a book.

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 dread public readings but now I mostly enjoy them. My daughter used to play cello in high school. One day I arrived late for a performance of the school’s string quartet; all the chairs were taken, so I had to sit off to the side. They played on a small stage to a seated and dark mass of people, their faces lifted towards the stage. All that music floating on an ocean of people. That’s the way I think of a live audience now - an ocean ready to float our poems and stories. The words go somewhere.  And yes, sometimes a reading or a comment by somebody at a reading will nudge the creative process.   

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 rarely think of my work as trying to answer theoretical questions.

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?
I try to be an eyes-wide-open witness to the world around me. Perhaps that’s the best we can do.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
A good editor needs to share your sensibility but also be willing to challenge you. A good outside editor is essential.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I’m a slow writer so I often remind myself that Confucious said something like, “It doesn’t matter how slowly you go, so long as you don’t stop.”

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

It’s refreshing to move between genres - for me, from poetry to an essay or to a story for children. It gives me a chance to flex different writing muscles, a bit like cross-training.

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?
I can write anywhere, as long as it’s quiet, but I do appreciate some routine. Depending on other demands, I write two to four mornings a week. A typical day would be coffee, a sit outside depending on the season, some breakfast, then into my upstairs study until the early afternoon.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
When a piece of writing gets stalled, I might try switching to another writing project. Sometimes I have to walk away from it for awhile. Spending time outside often clears my head  - that is, the thinking slows down do that images begin making connections that pull me back into the writing. Walking, biking, x-country skiing, swimming in the ocean - these all energize me.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Homemade spaghetti sauce.

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?
Everything in my little part of the world influences me including getting caught in  a rain storm, Bach’s cello pieces, numbers, the last pooped petunia in the garden, missing letters in signs, Giotto’s frescoes in a library book, a long sit in a hospital waiting room, too many puns, and books of course.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
M.F.K Fisher, Alice Oswald, George Herbert, Adele Wiseman, Vasily Grossman, Alden Nowlan, Wistawa Szymborska, Tomas Transtromer, R.L. Stevenson.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Travel to more places. Learn more languages.

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?
When I was a child, I wanted to be a detective. I think it was the idea of being watchful all the time and writing details down but all my nervous energy would have got me into trouble. Perhaps a musician - a pianist or cellist - still living in sound and daily practise. Or a full time gardener.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I loved to read. When I was growing up, our house was full of books. My parents opened an independent bookstore in Moncton, and that was my first job as a teenager. I still love to read, and I think writing is an extension of reading.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I often read several books at a time. I’ve just finished Nocturne by Helen Humphreys. “Art is always about the possible, is its own form of hope” she says. I’ve been thinking about that a lot. Also Dart by Alice Oswald. The Cello Suite by Eric Siblin.

20 - What are you currently working on?
Another pile of poems. Also some essays.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Souvankham Thammavongsa, Light



AGNES MARTIN, UNTITLED #10

This is a clearing: a rule
you will blind to yourself like a promise
to begin


It’s the colour bone is when you take it
out of itself, the colour of cold
when the sun doesn’t come to its calling


It’s the shape and shapes water
could be, the direction light can travel
to get to you


It’s the plot and path
of a small single letter,
the face of a country you can make yours:


the lines, the grids, the marks are here

To say that Toronto writer Souvankham Thammavongsa is a poet of the small moment is to not give her nearly enough credit: Thammavongsa is a poet of the miniscule, and nearly microscopic. On the heels of her first two poetry collectionssmall arguments (Toronto ON: Pedlar Press, 2003) and Found (Pedlar Press, 2007)—comes her stunning new collection Light (Pedlar Press, 2013). There is something about poetic smallness that has become more prevalent over the past few years, from the impossibly small poems of Toronto poet Mark Truscott, the densely-packed short short stories of Sarah Manguso and Lydia Davis, to the poetic density that runs through all of San Diego poet Rae Armantrout’s work. Smallness coheres through Thammavongsa, and yet the density never feels overburdened, somehow allowing a particular lightness, an idea that resonates throughout the collection. Expanding on what she had achieved through her first two titles, the poems in Light work in a variety of short forms, from the packed stanza to the lyric fragment to scattered words and phrases nearly composed as a series of single points. 





A FEATHER IS LIGHT

At the centre of it
here is bone


you can see through,
thin


as a plastic straw,
narrowing


to close itself up
at the ends


And all along
this bone,


smaller black feathers
line themselves,


their bones,
sharpened and thinned,


mend like needles

The poems in Light are littered with poems that shine light upon small moments composed as neatly as incisions, and write through the light in poems such as the poem “QUESTIONS SENT TO A LIGHT ARTIST THAT WERE NEVER ANSWERED,” that ends with the query:

13. Why light?


Friday, December 27, 2013

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Edmund Berrigan

Edmund Berrigan is the author of two books of poetry, Disarming Matter (Owl Press, 1999) and Glad Stone Children (Farfalla, 2008), and a memoir, Can It! (Letter Machine Editions, 2013). He is editor of the Selected Poems of Steve Carey (Sub Press, 2009), and is co-editor with Anselm Berrigan and Alice Notley of the Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan (University of California, 2005) and the Selected Poems of Ted Berrigan (University of California, 2010). He is an editor for poetry mags Vlak and Brawling Pigeon, and is on the editorial board of Lungfull!. He lives in Brooklyn.

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 Disarming Matter, published by Owl Press, run by Albert DeSilver. It was both great and a little scary to have it published. I remember walking in the woods and talking with Albert about whether it was worth putting more objects into a world that was already saturated with them.  But luckily he convinced me. And occasionally now people will tell me that something about that book has meant something to them, which gives it purpose. My work now is still connected to my initial interests, and doesn’t feel different to me.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I grew up in a household full of poets. My mom gave me my first blank notebook when I was 8, and I wrote poems on and off until I was teenager.  My mom gave me a new blank book when I was 15 or 16. I watched an episode of the TV show Quantum Leap in which Jack Kerouac was portrayed.  It was terrible, and I left the house with my notebook and walked around the West Village in NYC and wrote 4 or 5 poems, and that was when I decided that I was a poet for life.

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?

My last book, Can It!, took fifteen years from the initial writing until publication as a finished book.  I had a few learning curves to grapple with. Poetry manuscripts usually go through several drafts.  Sometimes a poem will come out exactly right the first time, but I also use processes that require rounds of editing.  I also do additional editing when manuscripts are coming together.  I do take a lot of notes, and failed works also become notes. Whether or not I have a full time job is also a factor.

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 have more success when I just start writing based on the impulse to write, and keep the decisions based in the process. Having chosen a life as a writer, everything I write is a small part of a larger practice.  I’m always working on a manuscript, but Can It! is the only book that had a predetermined formal idea.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I really enjoy reading, especially making changes to and decisions about works on the spot, based on the feeling of the performance. It offers new possibilities for the work, and it’s fun. Poems are meant to be vocalized, and it’s good to explore this part of the practice.

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 not really sure what a theoretical concern is, or else the answer is everything, but I tend to take a more unconscious approach to writing, so probably I wouldn’t know or would refuse to.  I’m not trying to answer questions particularly. I recently wrote down a quote from my dad’s book, Clear the Range: To be is nothing compared to being.

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 role of the writer is to provide information and escapism. Good writing makes people smarter and more compassionate. It directs their attention internally and externally, and gives them a different point of view.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
It’s always a good idea to have another set of eyes, but it is not essential.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“You are a writer, surely you know that.”  Robin Blaser said that to me after I sat in on a workshop he gave at Naropa in 1992 when I was 17. It was empowering. I didn’t want anyone to tell me what to do, but it was really great to have someone there to say keep doing it.

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

I started writing the pieces that became Can It! when I was unemployed and sleeping in an office in 1999.  After a while I got a job as a copy editor. By the time I finished Can It!, I had been a copy editor for over a decade, and I knew how to make editing decisions that I was unable to negotiate previously.  The appeal is being able to provide a range of situations and dimensions. The poems reflect lines of thinking, the diaries represent actions and responses, the interviews and conversation reflect what actually comes out when I talk, and so on.

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?

I don’t have a schedule or set routine, I just make sure to have a few notebooks handy. Most of recent writing has occurred on subways and airplanes.

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

If my mind isn’t ready, then I just do something else. Otherwise, anything that crosses the path of my senses is a potential inspiration.   

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Cooking, marijuana, and cat shit.

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?

The first time I saw cubist paintings my mind fell apart. I’ve also had important moments in my education at shows of Franz Kline’s paintings, Kurt Schwitter’s assemblages, and at the Picasso Museum in Paris. Musically, Bob Dylan has always been important for me, and led me into folk and country blues. I’ve played guitar since I was 8, and write, record and perform songs.  Nature, science and history are among my favorites.  I also read a lot of medical and pharmaceutical materials as part of my copy editing work.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
My dad died when I was 8, and I spent a lot of time when I was young reading all of his poems to try to understand him, myself, and to continue our relationship.  I read everything by my mother, brother, sister-in-law, and wife (all poets) and then I try to read as much of what is going on in my writing community as I can stand. So that’s quite a lot already, and all of it poetry, without getting into historical poets.  Currently, I get paid to read pharmaceutical advertising for 40 hours a week, and I follow baseball writing on a daily basis. I just finished Billy the Kid by Michael Ondaatje, which was interesting for me as a fan of western literature. I read Geronimo by Angie Debo awhile back, and that was also amazing.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Write a science fiction novel.

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 would like to be a geologist, physicist, astronomer, and archeologist. 

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

I was already a writer before I had a chance to think about it.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The last great book I read was Clear the Range by Ted Berrigan. I read it in on the subway during my morning commute. I really enjoyed my experience of reading and rereading it. I took a lot of notes. It’s a cross out of Twenty Notches by Max Brand, which I also read.

20 - What are you currently working on?

An essay about the Clear the Range.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;