Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Ken Hunt, The Lost Cosmonauts

Lost cosmonauts and astronauts are the heroes (or, in many cases, the martyrs and scapegoats) of modernity’s mythical expeditions into outer space, figures that remain central to propagandistic portrayals of American and Russian culture, respectively. Space exploration may have given rise to certain modern myths, from conspiracy theories surrounding the Apollo moon missions to the worship of UFOs, but, like all catalysts of myth, it does not offer a set of values or ideals in and of itself.

Ultimately, humanity creates and revises semantic systems in response to shifts in culture. Born from such fluctuations, new systems will always be both imperfect and temporary. Vigorously critiquing the ever-amorphous systems we find ourselves in at any given moment, regardless of their seeming validity or completeness, remains our best defence against ignorance and exploitation. (“THE LOST COSMONAUTS”)

Canadian poet, publisher and editor Ken Hunt’s latest is The Lost Cosmonauts (Toronto ON: Book*hug, 2018), situated between his debut, Space Administration, published in 2014 by the LUMA Foundation, and his two forthcoming titles: The Odyssey (Book*hug, 2019) and The Manhattan Project (Calgary AB: University of Calgary Press, 2020). I’m fascinated by the fact of his two forthcoming titles, and I can’t remember the last time I reviewed a new poetry title knowing the author already had another forthcoming, let alone two. Just how active has Ken Hunt been the past couple of years to have that much work suddenly new and forthcoming?

The Lost Cosmonauts works through the space race of the Cold War, blending language poetry and constraint works and research into both history and science, from the achievements and losses that come with such a race, the political tensions and the human cost. Hunt’s pieces are detailed, thick with historical nuance and weight , and composed utilizing a language that feels entirely electric, as the opening of the poem “CRUCIBLE,” that reads: “The glazed, saline lights of tears / glint as the sea burns with mirrored stars, fires / amid sunken lies, the ghosts of dead sparks.” 

Given Toronto poet Paul Vermeersch’s recent exploration through a history of astronauts and the space programs of the second half of the twentieth century in his latest poetry title [see my review of such here], I wonder if there is some kind of cultural movement afoot, as each poet responds to something that bubbles, at least for now, just under the surface of culture? In an interview posted last fall at Touch the Donkey, Hunt spoke of his work, specifically of the poems from his work-in-progress Project Blue Book:

These poems incarnate my continuing interest in writing poetry that responds to the sciences. I suppose the poems (or rather Project Blue Book as a whole) are similar to my forthcoming manuscripts (The Lost Cosmonauts, The Odyssey, and The Manhattan Project), in that each book represents a link in a kind of chain of texts that I’m in the process of producing. In addition to pursuing a PhD thesis that investigates examples of related works of poetry from the latter half of the 20th century to the present, I find myself compelled to add my own works to the canon as well, in order to address subjects that haven’t yet received the level of poetic attention that I think their continuing sociocultural impact warrants.

Out of the poetry published each year, and out of the catalogue of poetry written over the course of the past few decades, relatively few books have engaged in significant ways with scientific language, events, and ideas. Books that have done so have largely gone unnoticed, relative to books of poetry that have engaged with other subjects.

As Hunt says, that might be true, although I’m aware of more than a few poets out there that have attempted to explore science and scientific language, from Adam Dickinson to Stephen Brockwell and others. Either way, there is something fascinating at the suggestion that Hunt’s individual poetry titles connect to shape a larger kind of construct, how “each book represents a link in a kind of chain of texts,” akin to a more complex and deliberate variance of Robert Kroetsch’s Completed Field Notes or bpNichol’s The Martyrology. Given such, I’m eager to see how these subsequent titles fit into this current collection, and the eventual shape of this larger, unnamed entity.

And, if Vermeersch’s own title explores space as nostalgia, Hunt is more interested in the facts themselves, writing out a poetry that utilizes language itself to explore history and the big ideas that prompt such activity. His is not a poetry of nostalgia, but one of velocity, as a page of the third section, the sequence “Voyage to Luna,” reads:

Stirred by the sight of Apollo 8, each of the matriarchs drift to the
pantheon’s innermost chamber, where silvery thrones cast in silicon
sheathe their luminescent skin, each cold chair inlaid with magnetite murals
depicting astral wars foreign to mortal lore. Phoebe, the wisest one,
muses to her sisters: “Morals are dreamers of tragic absurdities,
destined to self-obsessed paths, their souls blighted with yearning and apathy.
We must extinguish this campaign of blasphemy, one bound to disgrace a
once-grateful people reverent of goddesses and gods alike. We once
guided the mortals; now they seek to conquer us. I’ll not forgive them this.”
“They are explorers, not arrogant conquerers,” says Phoebe’s niece, Selene.
“Violence is not their sole aptitude. Credit them for their pursuit of truth.”

Or, as the sequence “GALACTIC ENGINEERING” ends:

their arts to probe dimensions beyond sense’s doors,
the unexplored countries they toil blindly toward.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Spotlight series #33 : Kerry Gilbert

The thirty-third in my monthly "spotlight" series, each featuring a different poet with a short statement and a new poem or two, is now online, featuring Vernon, BC poet Kerry Gilbert.

The first eleven in the series were attached to the Drunken Boat blog, and the series has so far featured poets including Seattle, Washington poet Sarah Mangold, Colborne, Ontario poet Gil McElroy, Vancouver poet Renée Sarojini Saklikar, Ottawa poet Jason Christie, Montreal poet and performer Kaie Kellough, Ottawa poet Amanda Earl, American poet Elizabeth Robinson, American poet Jennifer Kronovet, Ottawa poet Michael Dennis, Vancouver poet Sonnet L’Abbé, Montreal writer Sarah Burgoyne, Fredericton poet Joe Blades, American poet Genève Chao, Northampton MA poet Brittany Billmeyer-Finn, Oji-Cree, Two-Spirit/Indigiqueer from Peguis First Nation (Treaty 1 territory) poet, critic and editor Joshua Whitehead, American expat/Barcelona poet, editor and publisher Edward Smallfield, Kentucky poet Amelia Martens, Ottawa poet Pearl Pirie, Burlington, Ontario poet Sacha Archer, Washington DC poet Buck Downs, Toronto poet Shannon Bramer, Vancouver poet and editor Shazia Hafiz Ramji, Vancouver poet Geoffrey Nilson, Oakland, California poets and editors Rusty Morrison and Jamie Townsend, Ottawa poet and editor Manahil Bandukwala, Toronto poet and editor Dani Spinosa, Kingston writer and editor Trish Salah, Calgary poet, editor and publisher Kyle Flemmer, Vancouver poet Adrienne Gruber, California poet and editor Susanne Dyckman and Brooklyn poet-filmmaker Stephanie Gray.

The whole series can be found online here.

Monday, January 14, 2019

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Robert Siek

Robert Siek is the author the poetry collections Purpose and Devil Piss (2013) and We Go Seasonal (2018), both published by Sibling Rivalry Press.

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?

It was my thirty-eighth birthday the day that Bryan Borland, the publisher of Sibling Rivalry Press, notified me that they had accepted the manuscript for my first book, Purpose and Devil Piss, for publication. Around the time that I submitted my manuscript to Bryan, I seriously felt like I no longer had the drive to continue trying to get a full-length collection published. I knew I wasn’t going to stop writing poetry because that wouldn’t be possible for me, but I was really doubting that any publisher would ever choose to put out a book by me. So this book fired me up. I began writing more regularly again and realized that it truly is never too late to accomplish a dream or find success. I once again felt that anything was possible—like maybe one day I’ll have enough poems to put together a manuscript for a second book.
            My new book, We Go Seasonal, my recently released second full-length collection, is mainly different from the first book in that the poems included in Devil Piss were from a period of fifteen years of my life, whereas the poems in the new book were all written within a span of four years. I think this caused the new book to feel more cohesive in voice and style than the first book. Even though I didn’t write the poems for the new book with any intended theme, there seems to be more of a connectedness among the poems than the ones in my first book. And of course I feel as though my work has advanced, grown, since what I did in my first book.

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

I came to poetry when I was thirteen. My older brother needed to write a poem for his English class. He was always an awful writer, so he and my mother asked me to try writing the poem for him. I wrote a creepy little poem called “Do You Miss Me?” that was obviously influenced by the short stories of Poe, as it was about a man who kills his wife and then a period of time later gets a telephone call from her saying, “Do you miss me?” I haven’t read it in ages but I’m sure it would make me laugh hysterically at this point. Anyway, the literary magazine of my brother’s high school accepted the poem for publication, so that made me want to write more. I kept going and haven’t stopped since. Honestly, during my childhood and through most of my teens, I didn’t read poetry outside of what was assigned in school. I was definitely only reading fiction in my personal time. It wasn’t until college that I began reading more poetry, beyond what was assigned to me in classes. It was then I began finding my poetry heroes and inspirations.

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 don’t really do particular writing projects. Basically I write my poems as the mood hits me. If I’m not in the mood, forcing something out of me just so I can say that I wrote something this or that day never turns into something I’m proud of. When I feel a strong need to write a poem, I have to go with it wherever I am, which is why I love writing on the Notes app on my phone. I’ve done most of my writing on subway trains in the past few years. So sometimes the work comes quickly, let’s say a poem a week, and then a period comes where I’m just not feeling it for weeks at a time and I might only write a poem every three or four weeks, if that. Because of the way I write, like a house fire that burns quickly, my poems do tend to appear close to their final shape. I never write copious notes or do major research. I will revise and edit again and again until a poem feels near perfect, and sometimes I go back to a poem months later and make further changes.

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 usually begins as just an image floating around in my head, which may have come from some odd thought or from something I saw while out and about. I get that image down and if it moves me, I begin to expand on it. Typically I don’t even know what I’m initially trying to say or where the poem will go, but that’s the fun of it for me. My poems have become shorter in recent years. That is probably because I don’t plan my poems the way I did in my twenties and some of my thirties. For some reason I no longer felt the need to think about what I wanted to write about, to plan the next poem. If a spark comes, I have to drop everything and go with it. So with less planning and more immediacy, a sense of urgency, a rushed release of the words, the poems have become shorter. I don’t write my poems intending to one day combine them into a larger project, nor am I ever working on a “book” as I move along with the writing. I write separate stand-alone poems, and eventually I discover that I have enough to select from for a new manuscript—or at least that’s how it happened for the new book. All of a sudden I decided to see if I could put together a manuscript with what I had written over the previous four years, and it turned out that I did.

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

I would say that public readings are part of my creative process to a small degree. I don’t think about how a poem will go off at a reading while I’m writing it, but I do read my poems out loud when revising them. That helps me hear any issues in the rhythm. But that’s about it. I’m not really hoping to make a poem more performance ready. I think if it’s good enough for the page, it’s good enough to be read in public. I don’t love doing readings. I don’t look forward to them. But I also don’t dislike the experience of doing a reading. I’m never overly nervous going into each reading, as I’ve been at this for a long time and have simply gotten used to doing it, so it kind of turns into this fun moment once I’m up there getting a laugh or applause. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more comfortable in my own skin and in my writing, so I just get up there and allow whatever is going to happen to happen.

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 view poetry as an art form and the poet as an artist. My job is to make the reader feel something when reading my poems. That is what I am most concerned with. Feel something, and then if you want to analyze and get cerebral and overthink, go for it. But you better have felt some strong emotion or I have failed.
I’m not consciously thinking about the kinds of questions I’m trying to answer with my work when I’m writing it. I guess deep down, on some level, I’m always trying to answer why people are generally so awful, why we ruin so much around us. I’m typically trying to understand our behavior, our motives, why we can’t be better without constantly being reminded of why we should be better, and also how we deal with life often being unfair and painful. I think those are the questions I’ve always dealt with. I’m still trying to figure it all out, to learn how we work, but these days I’m having more fun searching for answers and I’m willing to laugh more at how ridiculous it all is. I still want to see the world vastly improved in how people treat one another, but in the meantime while that seems less and less likely, I’m going to poke fun at the whole process because otherwise I’m going to die young from stress and anxiety or end up with my head in the oven. Life is short, so I’m trying to make the best of it.

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 see writers having multiple roles in the larger culture, whether the writer wants a specific role or not. Writers can be entertainers, artists, magicians, nuisances, activists, friends, earth shakers, celebrities, critics, influencers, prophets, and countless other things. I don’t think writers should define their roles. Why bother when the public will just do it for you. Maybe it helps some writers going into it with a role in mind, like I’m going to write bestselling thrillers or I’m going to write the fitness book that gets America moving. I guess it can be that simple; maybe not so much for poets.

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

My experience of working with the editors of Sibling Rivalry Press, Bryan Borland and Seth Pennington, was beneficial to the poems in my two books published by them. I’m open to suggestions, but I’m also willing to explain why I’d prefer not to change something. They have never been difficult to work with, but they most certainly have felt essential to the bookmaking process. Maybe a different editor would go too far and piss me off, but thankfully I have yet to experience that.

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

Just keep submitting work. No matter how many rejections you receive, just keep sending out your work. Try to always have work out there being considered by journals and publishers. The more work you have out there, the greater the likelihood of your work getting published. Personally I try to send out a new submission each time I receive a rejection.

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?

I don’t have any writing routine. I never have. I just write whenever I feel like I must do it, like there’s no waiting for a better time. Whenever I’ve tried to do the sit down and write every day thing, it just produces crap, but that’s just me. Someone else might thrive on a daily writing routine. It’s not like I’m writing a novel or I’m on a schedule, so no need to force anything. A typical day for me begins with getting ready for work as a production editor at Crown Publishing Group, where I’ve been employed for the past twelve years. I’ve been known to write a poem on my way to the office while riding the subway, but most of the time I’m reading a book and listening to music in an attempt to completely block out everyone around me on the train. I may live and work in New York City, but I’m still not a fan of crowds.

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

I try not to fret when I am stalled because I know it won’t last. This is why I have this “it’s an emergency” outlook on the urge to write, like I’m feeling it right now and if I don’t do something about it, who knows how long it might be until the next surge. I guess it helps me to listen more, look around more, try to experience something new. I get inspired by pretty ordinary things. Recently I noticed this statue of the Jersey Devil hanging behind a glass wall inside Penn Station. I’ve been going there for more than ten years to catch trains to visit family in New Jersey, and for some reason had never set my eyes on this bizarre statue. I took a photo of it for my Instagram page, and then the next thing you now I’m writing a poem using the image of the statue and Jersey Devil folklore, and the poem of course ends up having nothing to really do with the Jersey Devil or that crazy statue—but it’s a new poem and I like it!

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Febreze AIR Freshener, Linen & Sky scent, reminds me of home. It’s the scent I most often by for our bathroom. Beyond that, I think the scent of my home changes depending on what is being cooked in the kitchen or if a truck is running in the driveway next door and the exhaust is stinking up our air.

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?

Movies, TV, music, and visual art all influence my work. I’m a pop culture junkie and that comes through in my work. I’m also a huge horror movie fan, so often you’ll find imagery from horror movies, especially those from the 1970s and ’80s, infiltrating my work. I’m fairly certain Michael Myers of the Halloween franchise makes an appearance in two different poems in my new book. There’s also a poem that is entirely made up of imagery from the original Omen movie; it has nothing to do with the antichrist or the apocalypse, but the imagery worked for what the poem is attempting to say. Song titles and lyrics often find their way into my poems as well. Often if I can’t think of a good title for a poem, I’ll just use the title of or a lyric from a popular song instead. For some reason the Talking Heads make more than one appearance in We Go Seasonal, as well as ABBA and Xiu Xiu. There are probably other movies and songs in the book but I can’t remember them all at the moment.

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

Dennis Cooper, David Trinidad, Lynn Crosbie, and Tim Dlugos are the first four writers who come to mind when I think of which writers are important to my work and to my life outside of my work. I find them to be the most influential writers in my life. There are numerous others, but these four are at the top of my list. They get my motor running.

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

Win a prize for a poetry book. Get a poem or two in Poetry and The Paris Review. Relearn how to speak Spanish. Skydive.

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?

I would be a visual artist. I was an excellent drawer as a child, and often people would approach me at my brother’s baseball and football games where I’d be sketching away while sitting on the bleachers with my parents and ask me if I was going to be an artist when I grow up. Well I did become an artist but not that kind of artist. I took art every year in high school but was also writing poetry. I was getting more positive feedback regarding my writing and I didn’t have a portfolio of my visual art prepared when I began applying to colleges way back when, so I went the easier route and decided to pursue a degree in English. Initially I was planning on getting my teacher’s certification so I could teach high school English, but in my second year of undergrad I decided teaching wasn’t for me. I then began taking creative writing courses so I could get my concentration in creative writing. I briefly flirted with journalism but I found the two journalism classes I took to be boring. I’m glad I focused on poetry after all, but there is a part of me that is haunted by one of the two art teachers from my high school asking me what I was going to study in college and upon hearing me say English responded with, “Oh no! Why aren’t you going into fine arts? You’re the only one who could have done something in the arts.” He walked off kind of muttering in disappointment. I did take a drawing class at the Art Students League in Manhattan during my four-week sabbatical from work two years ago. I enjoyed it, but it kind of convinced me that I’m not as interested in making visual art as I had been as a child and teenager. Maybe I’m just lazy, but right now I’m good with only being a poet.

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

Again, I’m kind of lazy. All of my energy goes into writing my poetry, and that’s about all I have to give when it comes to making art. I even started writing a novel once (yes, it’s also writing but not poetry), maybe twelve years ago, but I got bored with it and stopped around page 132. I should just delete the file. I don’t really care to return to it. When working on the novel, I kept going back to my poetry and was annoyed that the novel was taking my time away from poetry. The novel really wasn’t that great. Maybe one day I’ll try novel writing again. Maybe. Honestly beyond writing, the only other activity I’d be interested in doing is visual art, but again, I made an attempt to get back into that and it went nowhere. An ex once tried to teach me how to crochet. I didn’t like that very much so that didn’t really go anywhere either. I liked doing gymnastics as a kid, but I doubt at forty-four I’m going to start practicing floor exercises again. I became too tall to be a gymnast when I started going through puberty, or at least that’s what the coaches told me, so that was the end of that dream.

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

Oh geez, one last great book—I’ve read so many. Well I have to say that the most recent book I read that really stuck with me is Lynn Crosbie’s Life Is About Losing Everything. Lynn and I are friends so I suppose this is a bit biased, but it really left the biggest impression on me of everything I’ve read in the past few months. I had already read some of her poetry collections and her two novels, Where Did You Sleep Last Night and Chicken, but I’d yet to read Life Is About Losing Everything from 2012. I’m glad I backtracked because it blew me away. I think the fact that it felt like something I would like to do with my own writing speaks volumes. Lynn seems to string together images with such ease, things that shouldn’t go together or that you would never think should be used to describe whatever it is she’s describing just work in her world, and that is a world I feel most comfortable in. This is probably why we’ve become such dear friends in the short time of knowing each other.
            As for the last great film I’ve seen, I guess I’ll say Hereditary. Yes, it’s a horror movie but it was so bizarre and clever. And it got me to look up and read about the demon Paimon. And honestly during the finale of that movie, I felt a strange chilling sensation through my body, not so much because I was scared but more so because this whole horrifying climax was so weirdly unexpected and presented in a strangely beautiful manner—the lighting, the music, the headless bodies bowing. There was almost a sense of peace during the scene even though it was kind of ridiculous.

19 - What are you currently working on?

I’m just writing a poem here and there. I feel like the poems I’ve been writing the past year or two are some of the best I’ve ever written, so I guess I’ll just keep at it and eventually I’ll surprise myself when I realize that once again I have enough work to put together a manuscript. So I guess you can say that I’m working on a third book. One day I’ll finish it.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Ben Purkert, For The Love Of Endings


The plural of anything is bound to be sharper:

countless birds spelling V above my head.

Where they land, the earth must slightly compress,

hardening under their cool weight.

Wing-shadows held against their breasts.

Each bird only tries to be

what it is, & people call this intelligence.

We write it down, star it somewhere in our notes.

When our minds wander, they go alone.

After hearing of American poet Ben Purkert’s debut full-length collection for a while, I’m finally able to get into his For The Love Of Endings (New York NY: Four Way Books, 2018), a collection of smart, knowing lyric poems that work through a series of meditations, explorations and even some recriminations. “[L]ike most men,” he writes, to open the poem “DEAR EX,” “I’ll gaze // at anything to avoid looking / inward.” The reflections are open, wide-eyed and breathless, writing out pared down and slow-paced sentences and line-breaks that cause the heart to pause, and the gaze to sharpen. As he writes to close the poem “THE PAST IS THE PRESENT ONLY COLDER”:

You & I could trade places
& still the water around our lives

would be level. Someday I’ll lock
myself away, then flatten my breath

against the glass. I’ll leave a smiley
in the fog. All movies end in tragedy,

names leaping off the screen.

There is an enormous amount to parse here, and an enormous amount to absord. As well, there is something reminiscent of Canadian poet Jack Davis’ Faunics (Pedlar Press, 2017) [see my review of such here] in Purkert’s meditative breath and quick wisdoms, one that allows for the essential words to emerge, and letting all else fall away. How could one not pause at some of these lines, as he opens the title poem, the prose-sequence “FOR THE LOVE OF ENDINGS”: “The blank page always wins.”


Not the heart of a place
but its black box. Not words
but wings scrawled across
a page, almost onto
the next. Am I reading
too much into night?
A star was what is.
A star looks backwards,
says the sea.