Monday, March 27, 2017

Aisha Sasha John, I have to live.




I had a vision now.
It wasn’t a vision.
A man in a striped shirt stood in a line.
His hair looked like yours
So I thought of you.
Fuck I prolyl should’ve messaged you back
After I asked for and you sent me that photo
Of your baby. (“Today I could aspire but I want to nap”)

Toronto poet, choreographer and performer Aisha Sasha John’s third poetry collection is the absolutely thrilling I have to live. (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 2017), a book-length suite of lyric poems running lengthwise across the entire stretch of being, exploring the physical, the sexual and the spiritual. Composed as a poetic diary, I have to live. is an incredibly sensual and deeply personal book, and sketches out across titles such as “Something softens me,” “I sleep in a room.” and “When I leave here I don’t know where I am.” to “What’s the big fucking deal about,” “The landlord said he lost his phone.” and “How much of your body is in your head.” There is something memoir-ish, even “confessional” in her first-person poems, carved as a combination between lyric essay, storytelling and myth. “I am low and found; I am high and found.” she writes at one point. In another part of the collection, she adds: “If I’m wrong / If I’m wrong – who gives a fuck? // I have to live.”

Oh I feel great.
And jealous.
Ya I feel grealous.
I have ten minutes.
Today I want clarity.
I understand the next book cover
To be my tiny little ear so
If you want more instruction, note:
I already told you
To lie on the ground or
Sit on it.
It can’t be
Saturday morning
All the time. (“Happy Cup”)

The poems in this collection revel in the phrase and fragment, held together as a single, extended book-length declaration of story, personality and theatre; a declaration of standing firm, resisting when required, and being attentive to whatever might come. This is an open-hearted, no bullshit collection of hefty, articulate, funny and sensual poems. One of the more striking poems in the collection, originally published in The Capilano Review, is the sequence “In August I visited my Gran.” that includes:

On the television
A woman carves from a stack of rice krispie squares
Human breasts.

I feed cut watermelon to my grandmother.

I am low and found; I am high and found.
When I read that part to my mom over the phone she
Cries. It’s sad
She says.

I put my ticket there on her Visa.

The next day my cousin sends me a message.
I read the message.
Then what I do is call my mother.
Now you don’t have any more grandparents!


Sunday, March 26, 2017

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Molly Bendall



Molly Bendall is the author five collections of poetry, After Estrangement, Dark Summer, Ariadne’s Island, Under the Quick, and most recently Watchful from Omnidawn press. She also has a co-authored with the poet Gail Wronsky Bling & Fringe from What Books.  Her poems and translations have also appeared in the anthologies: American Hybrid, Poems for the Millenium, and Satellite Convulsions: Poems from Tin House.

She has won the Eunice Tietjens Prize from Poetry magazine, the Lynda Hull award from
Denver Quarterly and two Pushcart Prizes.  She currently she teaches at the University of Southern California.  

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
It was definitely affirming for me when my first book came out. I felt I had arrived in the literary world even in a small way. I love the book as object, the materiality and feel of it. I got to choose the cover which I really appreciated, and I’ve been able to choose all my book covers since, and this has been important for me and the sense I have of the book. Also, the idea of other people holding the object and putting it on their shelves is a wonderful way of being in the world. I still feel that way with each book, and each new collection makes me want to keep going further with my work.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I was lucky that I had a mother who read poetry to me at a very young age.  Of course,
it was poetry written for children—the greats, such as Eugene Field, Robert Louis Stevenson,
Christina Rossetti, Walter de la Mare.  I became aware of language having rhythms and cadences by hearing these poems.  Also, since I was so young, the language was mysterious and often inscrutable to me, and that sense of it stayed with me.   I was also a dancer when I was young, and the structures and movements of dance are more like the expressions of poetry than prose I think.

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 take at least a year when I begin a new project. A year of jotting things down and writing many poems that usually fail. I find that this is necessary for me to get at the voice, rhythms, and diction I want. Also, it takes a while for me to have a focus or theme that I become nearly obsessed with.

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?
Sometimes I work on a small group of poems thinking it will become a sequence, and then sometimes a single poem I’m writing is related thematically to other pieces I’ve worked on. And as I mentioned, I usually will have a kind of focus that includes voice, rhythms, a lexicon, with some variations, and I try to keep writing poems with these in mind, which after a long while becomes 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 find readings are quite helpful to me in understanding how my work is coming across. I like
presenting the poems through my voice and expressing the words and lines. And I think it’s interesting to hear others read their work also. I often play audio recordings of poets when I teach. I like the reactions from students as they hear the rhythms and intonations of a particular poet.

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?
My recent book concerned itself with human and animal relations.  The poems also explored an elegiac stance. In a larger sense, I would say I’m interested in the expressiveness of language and how it can subvert logic and representation but still have emotional or spiritual resonance. 

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 (and all artists really) help put us in touch with the limitlessness of our inner lives as well as the reaches of our outer and social lives. Their responsibility is to the work itself, which expresses and illuminates our world, including the shameful and negative aspects. And poetry reminds us how rich and complicated language is and how fortunate it is that we have this way of expressing ourselves. I guess I would also say we, as poets, have a responsibility to explore and to show language’s possibilities and not just opt for the ordinary and easy. 

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I found it was really valuable working with both Rusty Morrison at Omnidawn and Jon Thompson at Parlor Press.  They were close readers of my work and saw things in it that I didn’t always see.  I am so grateful for their generosity.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
One of my teachers, the poet Charles Wright, said “You have to become obsessed with something and keep working on it.” That seems obvious to me now. I just had to listen to what my obsessions were.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (your own poetry to translation)? What do you see as the appeal?
I recently wrote a long critical essay on the poetry of Christine Hume. I found that I had to stay in that analytical head space for quite a while. I enjoyed this hard work, and it taught me a lot about critical reading and writing, but I was glad to get back into the head space of writing poems. And then I regularly write shorter reviews of books which is fun, and I think it’s important to recognize books that I admire and that I feel are exploring something in a new way.

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 work early in the morning usually, but I like to take a note or two anytime of day or night.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Often, I turn to other books, sometimes poetry, sometimes fiction in order to soak up some wonderful language. I also go and look at things: landscapes, like the ocean nearby, art, animals, fashion, street life. I do like to absorb the world. I write final drafts and editing in a quiet space, but when I jot down notes I like to be around things, the colors and movements of the world.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Sheets hanging on a clothesline, newly raked leaves

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?
Again, lots of things can inspire and influence my work.  I love to go to museums, not only art museums but historical museums where there are many artifacts to ponder. And with my last book Watchful, the zoo was an important place for me to go.  It was a place that was intriguing and troubling at once.

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?
I’d love to go on an archaeological dig anywhere in the world.

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 probably would have continued being a dancer for a little while longer, although that career is fairly short.  Then I would have maybe been an historian, digging through archives.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I’ve always loved books and wanted to make one of my own, and I was drawn to the solitary activity of writing.

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


20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m reading about women who found themselves under regimes and struggled against them in various ways.  I learned and read about Elizabeth Van Lew who lived in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia, and she risked her life spying for the Union during the Civil War. Also, I’m reading the amazing writings of Herta Muller who lived through the Ceausescu regime in Romania. 

I’m thinking about these women and the psychological space of these kinds of struggles as I’m
writing some new poems.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Nicolas Pesquès, OVERYELLOW, trans. Cole Swensen




In the beginning there was nothing but immediacy

a continual source of forgetting
that doesn’t need us





later sensation proceeded from abstraction
while a word cut-out occupied the slope

from one to the other, it looks like slight-of-hand
whose expression would keep a secret
though the secret is not its own

in the end, a sacrificial yellow strikes y eyes
the body won (“Overyellow: The Dissolution”)

Translated by Cole Swensen is Nicolas Pesquès OVERYELLOW: The Poem as Installation Art (Anderson SC: Parlor Press, 2017). The sixth volume in his “The North Face of Juliau” sequence of poetry books, this is but the third translated into English (also by Cole Swensen), alongside Physis (Parlor Press, 2006) and Juliology (Counterpath, 2008). As the preface to the current collection reads:

Nicolas Pesquès has been working on a single project for over twenty years: La face nord du Juliau (The North Face of Mount Juliau); it’s now twelve volumes long. On the one hand, it’s a work about place—about the attempt to construct, through writing, the possibility of place in the external world It’s an attempt based on the recognition that the “external world,” too, is constructed of and through language, and so Pesquès interrogation of the mountain that dominates his landscape becomes an interrogation of language, of how it brings us the world and how it simultaneously denies us access to it. But on the other hand, the series is also—one could even say, is only—about color, about the irrepressibility and the impact of the vivid. Slowly going throughout the collection is a suggestion that color is alive in a way that nothing else is.

The poems in OVERYELLOW: The Poem as Installation Art are composed as an extended, single lyric, abstractly circling yellow and its concept, “OVERYELLOW,” writing: “OVERYELLOW is the name of the god of labor and the lively // a reclining body that watches us, its breasts seized by diction / making the hill come forward[.]” The idea of writing poems-as-installation are intriguing, and the abstract of Pesquès’ lyric deliberately evade the concreteness he suggests, composing something that exists momentarily, here and there; it is almost as a trick of the light, poems shifting in and out of focus, masterfully evading the possibility of anything too firm or solid. In Pesquès’ OVERYELLOW: The Poem as Installation Art, the light is magnificent.

This project is based in the hope that the forest of broom will
happen again.

This object condenses and runs it.
It enlarges the circle, the mirror of the estate. It spreads the brain.

Like, at the end of the road, a wall of air.



YELLOW ambient and resistant. Brake poem. Hoisted-plunged.
A garden grown sudden.



Friday, March 24, 2017

Ploughshares : an interview with Faizal Deen

I'm a monthly blogger over at the Ploughshares blog! And my ninth post is now up: an interview with Ottawa poet Faizal Deen, who reads this weekend as part of Ottawa's 7th annual VERSeFest! And he even has a new chapbook with above/ground press.

You can see links to all of my Ploughshares posts here, including an interview with Canada's 7th Parliamentary Poet Laureate, George Elliott Clarke, editor/critic Erin Wunker, Arc Poetry Magazine Poetry Editor Rhonda Douglas, an interview with editor/publisher Leigh Nash on Invisible Publishing, an interview Cobourg, Ontario poet, editor, fiction writer and small press publisher Stuart Ross, an interview with Toronto novelist Ken Sparling, an interview with award-winning Kingston writer Diane Schoemperlen and an interview with award-winning Toronto poet Soraya Peerbaye.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Emily Izsak



Emily Izsak is in her second year of U of T’s MA in English and Creative Writing program. Her work has been published in Arc Poetry Magazine, The Puritan, House Organ, Cough, The Steel Chisel, The Doris, and The Hart House Review. In 2014 she was selected as PEN Canada’s New Voices Award nominee. Her chapbook, Stickup, is available on woodennickels.org and her first full-length collection, Whistle Stops, will be out in April 2017 from Signature Editions.

1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first chapbook was really just compilation of everything I had done up to that point that felt half decent. I had more of a concrete plan when I began writing my first full-length book. I like Whistle Stops more than anything I have ever written. Once, while I was working in a pottery studio (shouts out to Clay Design), a customer asked me if I was a potter. I told her no, that I was a poet. She responded, “well, you’ll figure something out someday.” Having a book makes me feel like I’ve figured something out and like calling myself a “poet” isn’t so presumptuous.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
It’s always been poetry. I don’t know why. I think because I want to write things that I want to read, and I often want to read poetry more than I want to read fiction or non-fiction.

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?
It takes me anywhere from an hour to a few hours to write a poem (and I write fairly short poems). I sort of have notes. I usually collect a bunch of words that I like on a page in the document I’m working on and whenever one gets used in a poem I’ll remove it from the bunch. First drafts and final drafts would look pretty similar to people who aren’t me, probably, but little edits (changing a word here and there or taking out an article) make a big difference to whether or not I feel like a poem is finished.

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?
Definitely working on a book from the beginning (my first chapbook is an exception). I don’t think I could go back to writing individual pieces. I like how poems in a book can coalesce and call back to each other and also there’s less pressure on each individual poem to be all-encompassing.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I’m not good at public readings. My voice isn’t particularly loud or dynamic. I like hearing people laugh at the jokes in my poems, though. I also like being around other poets. Reading in public is like getting a back massage at a spa—vulnerable, a little awkward, but ultimately feels good. I’ve never been to a spa.  

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 can we represent gender in literature without relying on anatomy or stereotypes? If language can’t represent reality, can it represent unreality? Can it create its own reality? How do trains work? What is sexy?

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?
To write.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Essential– but also, the opposite of difficult– splendid, wonderful, joyous. Nobody will ever read my work as closely as an editor. Also, I’ve had the pleasure of working with some fantastic editors including the legendary Victor Coleman and of course Garry Thomas Morse who solicited Whistle Stops before it existed and sends me relevant Youtube videos whenever I need them most.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“Get rid of the fucking similes” —Victor Coleman

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
They’re very separate things. I write prose much faster than I write poetry. Most of the prose I write nowadays is about television shows I like.

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?
Deadlines are the best. If I have a deadline, I’ll get shit done. If I don’t, I’ll write when I feel like it (which is usually one poem a week).

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

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Paprika.

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 like stand-up comedy, particularly Louis CK, Maria Bamford, Stewart Lee, and John Mulaney. They all have a really good sense of rhythm and timing that has probably influenced my work.

Also nature documentaries narrated by David Attenborough. Also Beyonce’s Lemonade. Also animation (Over the Garden Wall, Adventure Time, Rick and Morty). Now I’m not sure if I’m listing influences or just things I like.

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?
Make a video game.

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?
Pastry Chef.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
There were things I wanted to read that didn’t exist yet… like poems about my specific boyfriend.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Throaty Wipes by Susan Holbrook is pretty great. Oh, and Waters Of by Billie Chernicoff. Westworld counts as a film to me even though it’s technically a television show, so Westworld. Also Louis CK’s Horace and Pete, which is also technically a show.

20 - What are you currently working on?
A series of poems on the mating dances of tropical birds and how that relates to gender and performativity and theatre and modern sex. I’m still figuring it out.