Saturday, September 14, 2019

Jill Magi, SPEECH

Is this version of city
to cross your outpost

a light blue gauze
a desert skin

a thick grey fog
a south side a redline

                is your outpost this
comfort version

your heart tent
your lopsided outpost

a crowded kitchen
a blocked window

blocked by too many beds
stacked for rent

is your north
crossing your south (“Outpost/_____”)

American poet and visual artist Jill Magi’s latest is the book-length SPEECH (Brooklyn NY: Nightboat Books, 2019), following Threads (Futurepoem Books, 2007), Torchwood (Shearsman Books, 2008), Cadastral Map (Shearsman Books, 2011), SLOT (Ugly Duckling Presse Dossier Series, 2011), Pageviews/Innervisions: A Textimage Theory and Curriculum (Moving Furniture Press/Rattapallax, 2014) and LABOR (Nightboat Books, 2014). In “An Interview with Jill Magi and Pierre Depaz, Author and Programmer of SIGN CLIMACTERIC,” conducted by Brandon Krieg and posted at NANO: North American Notes Online, December 2018, Magi references the book, then still forthcoming:

I thought about a section in my manuscript SPEECH—forthcoming from Nightboat in 2019—about “the climacteric,” which refers to menopause in women, and in botany, refers to a stage when a fruit has finished growing but the ripening is completed on the vine. If you look up climacteric, you’ll see that the menopause version of the meaning is lack, death, decay, and symptoms. But the botany meaning is positive! There are all sorts of interesting things going on with cellular respiration at that stage in ripening.

About two years ago menopause became visible in my life, and I was floored by the onset of hot flashes—by how little I knew about it and by the bind I found myself in: taking hormone supplements could cure the hot flashes, but HRT (hormone replacement therapy) has also been linked to cancer. I decided to sweat it out.

The poems in SPEECH see the narrator walking around her city, akin to Vancouver poet Meredith Quartermain’s Vancouver Walking (Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 2005), walking and meditating on space, thinking and geography, but Magi also moves through ideas of boundaries, borders and the citizen, writing: “where impossible citizen / does not stop walking but // folds impossible glimpses / inside // not fully seen speaking / here joins the unfolding // pushing air up out / through enormous fans” (“Outpost/_____”). There are comparisons, also, to be made to Erín Moure’s ‘citizen’ trilogy, as Magi writes: “impossible citizen lands // a job in a place eaten up by / origins” (“Outpost/_____”).

Through ten extended sequence-sections—“Introduction / She went out for bread,” “Outpost/_____,” “Sign Climacteric,” “Various East Various South,” “Until she hosts,” “Some Various West,” “This steep repeat —,” “Now words float down. See the gentle of that.,” “Post-Script / A Third Space” and “Painting a bibliography”—Magi walks and absorbs, articulates and advocates. Magi writes on the refugee (from the domestic homeless to the stateless migrant), the climate crises, the subject of freedom and nationalism, western relationships with developing nations, the destructive myopics of capitalism, and the existential void it creates; she writes of the citizen, and the responsibilities that should come automatically with living in the world, from concerns ranging from the local to the global, crossing thresholds and boundaries and borders. “who is deported or shot / for roads for mining // as inroads come / hailed as progress // for hauling off the wealth / as a presidential visit // in whose ski / has the developing // world arrived—” (“Some Various West”). The poems reach through conflict, crises and trauma for solutions but hold no solutions but the obvious, that we should be better to each other, and for each other. Why aren’t more readers listening?

fold safety back
into the search for a system

where a study is not a singular pose
as it feels for the roots that make
a self a city a country sink
under the great spine of democracy
the great glow of a crown

SPEECH a lake of lack
of desert valve
of the haves and not—
(“Various East Various South”)

Friday, September 13, 2019

Maxine Chernoff, Under the Music: Collected Prose Poems

            What, then, are we holding when we pick up a collection of Maxine Chernoff’s achievements in the prose poem form? If not a collection of fables, or a collection of first-person lyrics without lines, or a collection of elliptical dreams—one filmless Un Chien Andalou after another—what do we have, exactly? What binds them together, except for the publisher’s stitching or glue? In the end, it is an act of affirmation with the whole, complex, contradictory heritage of the prose poem’s tradition that comes to the fore. The refusal of lineation is, like the use of lineation in more conventional poems, a signifier, directing us to a context against which the work before us can be read. And more than any other significant practitioner of the prose poem form, Maxine Chernoff embraces the whole breadth of that tradition. (Robert Archambeau, “Introduction: Embracing the Ghost”)

I am pleased to see a new volume from American poet and editor Maxine Chernoff, the collection Under the Music: Collected Prose Poems (Asheville NC: MadHat Press, 2019), and curious at the particular thread pulled from her extensive published work-to-date, her lengthy history of working within the tradition of the prose poem. In his impressive introduction to the book, poet and critic Robert Archambeau provides a rich history of the prose poem, specifically the prose poem that emerged across the American tradition—setting Chernoff’s work in a tradition that stretches from Aloysius Bertrand and Baudelaire to Russell Edson, Michael Benedikt and Rosmarie Waldrop—and how Chernoff writes her own way across the whole length and breadth of possibilities, but seems to provide little in the way of context of how these poems situate themselves across Chernoff’s own writing (and I’ve never understood the fascination with Edson in the tradition of the “American prose poem” over, say, Lydia Davis’ fictions, which are far more lyric and powerful). While I’ve been an admirer of Chernoff’s work for some time [see my review of her prior collection here], I would have been curious to understand better how her explorations through the prose poem over the years have interplayed with or even relate to other elements throughout her work. Is this something that exists in roughly half her published work? Two thirds? A quarter? Perhaps this is information that informed readers of American poetry generally, or of Chernoff’s work specifically, already know, but it does present itself here as an absence. An interview conducted by Jane Joritz-Nakagawa for Jacket magazine back in 2009 suggests that Chernoff is predominantly known for her work in the prose poem, as the interview begins:

Jane Joritz-Nakagawa: Your reputation is obviously associated not only but especially perhaps with the prose poetry genre. Is your process for writing prose poems very different from the process you follow when writing other poems? Could you comment on both? And as someone who also has published fiction, about the differences between writing poetry and fiction you would like to say…

Maxine Chernoff: When I began as a writer in 1972 (age 20), it was a rich time of prose poetry in other countries, and I was strongly drawn to the Latin-American fabulists and postmoderns such as Marquez, Cortazar and Lispector, as well as the earlier French practitioners including Cendrars, Jacob, and Ponge. The only American prose poems that existed (or that I knew of) were those by Robert Bly, which felt mawkish to me, and those by Russell Edson, which I enjoyed very much. Of course there was Gertrude Stein, but I hadn’t discovered her yet. I began writing prose poems based on this reading, and my method, as far as I can remember, was to have a concept (a head in a garden, naked Benjamin Franklin, a fan made of moustaches) and then write the poem in a rush. One might say that the “topic,” as arbitrary as it was, made me inspired to produce it. This was my early practice.

When I more or less left poetry for fiction about ten years later, I continued a similar practice of finding a line of conversation or a concept that would launch me into a story that would come out quickly and then get revised in close proximity to being written. It took me awhile to leave the prose poem, though. I was full of dread about assigning characters actual names and giving them a more concrete and “human” existence than my “shadow-puppets” had in my prose poems. In some way it felt audacious to me to make people up to the degree that fiction required.

When I came back to poetry after about a decade writing only fiction, stories and novels, I was no longer interested in the prose poem. I wanted to explore sound and line and a lot of the aspects of poetry that I had left unexamined earlier. So my method right after writing fiction became one of using sonic connections as can be seen in my book Japan, which was a radical departure from my earlier work. In the book preceding that, New Faces of 1952, I had collected prose poems that had been unpublished when I had started to write fiction as well as poems in lines that were far less interested in narration and much more attentive to wordplay and sound than my previous poems.

I also began to write whole series or books in the case of Among the Names of related poems.

In everything I’ve written, compression is a method. I’m not a big or messy writer. Nor am I a minimalist because my eagerness won’t let me hold back as much as I might.

As well, there doesn’t seem to be an editor listed in the collection, which suggest that Chernoff herself made the selection. While I have no issue with that in the least, I would have liked to hear her thoughts on the process of selecting such a particular structural thread from her four-plus decades of published work. What did that process entail, or even reveal? The selection process also opens a series of questions: is this a complete prose poems, or only a ‘selected’ in terms of collected prose poems; is every prose poem she published in book form included in this volume? Were there pieces that straddled the line between prose poem and something other, that were considered but, in the end, not included?

If this is in a book as most things turn out to be, the woman will have read it twice: once when she was young herself, a reader whose eyes grew teary for Mrs. Ramsey and all the love in the world that gathers in unmapped corners where someone comes to stand for no good reason, and then again when she is older and knows the pleasure of overhearing in her own voice things she might have said to calm herself and soothe a boy. (“A House in Summer”)

The poems from the volume are pulled from her books The Last Aurochs (Iowa City: Now! Press, 1976), A Vegetable Emergency (Venice CA: Beyond Baroque Foundation, 1977), Utopia TV Store (Chicago: The Yellow Press, 1979), New Faces of 1952 (Chicago: Another Chicago Press, 1991), World: Poems 1991-2001 (Cambridge England: Salt Editions, 2001), The Turning (Berkeley CA: Apogee Press, 2007), Here (Denver CO: Counterpath Press, 2014) [see my review of such here] and Camera (Boulder CO: Subito Press, 2016), and provide a wealth of some two hundred pages of Chernoff’s work across forty-odd years. What is interesting, also, are the shifts that emerge through Chernoff’s short narratives, from the more lush end of the lyric to the short short story, the music of her prose poems existing at a variety of points between those two poles, and even, occasionally, beyond their scope. I would think this, for any readers unfamiliar with Chernoff’s work, a lovely place to begin, and a fascinating focus on her prose poem work. One would hope, also, this might be a jumping-off point for further critical exploration on what she’s been doing, and doing with verve and purpose for years. Where are you, critics?


She examines the tiny globe, world underwater, and writes slowly, “Answerig this letter means I am lost, love.” Dark boughs of a tree hit the side window. She imagines a rustling in all of nature, wind swarming the trellised gate where he stood among the almond trees blossoming. He had shown her the picture of the snake-headed woman with delicate, smooth arms. He collected amber bottles from the market that summer; poison vials, he called them. He had never hoped. If bees sent him solace, if love were a cure. She found comfort in a blue door frame surrounded by the dark, ancient ivy of novels. Soon it would be winter, the harbor frozen, fish like embers under ice. Ultimate cures, a slogan on the pier, a trick of summer when amber shone in a wondow to decorate an hour.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Robert Frede Kenter

Robert Frede Kenter is a writer and visual artist. His poetry has been published widely including ARC, New Quarterly, Grain, Prairie Fire, Paragraph, Going Down Swinging (Melbourne), Burning House Press, Cough, Antigonish Review etc.  His book of poems Audacity of Form with images by Julia Skop, Cathy Daley and RFK is currently available from Ice Floe Press (2019). Robert’s theatre writings and performance have been staged at Buddies in Bad Times, The Theatre Centre, Theatre for A New City (NYC), Intersection (San Francisco), A Space and other venues. He was a member of the poetry bands, Broken Legs (Ohio/NYC), and Palimpsest and the Slip Singers with Bruce Burron and Janice Williamson. His work is in anthologies from Gutter Press, Mosaic Press, The Playwright’s Union of Canada. He has exhibited art and photography in NYC, Toronto.  He tweets at @frede_kenter

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 an embed in a journal, Writ, that came out of the University of Toronto, published by Roger Greenwald. It was written when I was living in NYC. It’s publication was a gracious shock, and an indication to me I should continue writing. But shortly after I became very ill with a virus (and ensuing complications of a post-viral kind including fibromyalgia). Post sickness my energy level was so low that for a long time I couldn’t write and took up painting. This book is the landscape after the floodwaters recede, and, although it’s a long-time coming, it’s sedimentary and archaeological, reflecting where I was pulled during the exile; it contains many voices – voices of ancestors, friends, family, voices of echoes of a past that is inside me and around – ghosts – who came seeping out of the darkness to keep me afloat, and now follow me around wherever I go.

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

Allen Ginsberg comes to mind, I read his poems and went to see him perform with his harmonium – and that was it. I was like 13 and I was swooning.  I think I fell in love with the syntax and the shape and form of line in a way that was much harder for me to find in a lot of fiction. Also – my brother and I used to sit in his room in our family home in Hamilton acting out entire Shakespeare plays, we would take turns playing one character against another – I think I was about 12 at the time. So that’s the time frame.  I write fiction, non-fiction, and  always consider – for me -- which is key.  Poetry.  I think in terms of hybrids and connectivity, juxtaposition and abject disjuncture, ruptures and experiments. I like very short poems and I love long-poems.

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 am surrounded by work-in-process; it’s a decades-long unravelling and putting together. Hard drives, notebooks, file cabinets, visual prompts. These days I fill notebooks pleasing to the eye, they are the colour of butcher paper,  I often cover every surface in ALL CAPS.  I write quickly, images and patterns and fragments of voices, (mine/conduits) -story flows continuously (especially lately) like an insistent voice-whirl spigot.  Then, I sculpt tirelessly, usually it takes numerous drafts before I am seeing something, experiencing the exactness of what I am intending. I think in abstract images, I try to hone and shape them, clothing on the bone, so to speak, apparel accoutrements, flowers in buttonholes in various stages of langour and decay and that sharp riot of pure beauty just before you fall over, dust off, get back up again.

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 work rhythmically, see-saw between discrete short form and extended form. I have different ‘thematic’ templates – family poems, father poems, mother poems, travel poems, love poems – I put them together into manuscripts;  I take them apart and juxtapose them in other contexts – building and unravelling context.   I think through fragments – juxtapositions, associations, ruminations, physical memory embodied in musculature. The pieces all refer to one another but have bookends, fit in covers, wake up inside suites, wave across the room at each other.

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

I love doing readings – I need to do more of them. I go out to readings. I’m interested in how readings can be performative, how the line on the page can be translated into spoken form, as if the line would become a vision moving through the body of the listener. 

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 concerns are intuitive.  I think of it as a theory of listening.  Gathering.

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?

Hopefully we entertain one another. There is a ritual, liturgical, incantatory humour to the unravelling and putting together of the world. We are witnesses and participants. It’s like in education – I think its more important to explore ‘student-centred’ possibilities than it is to have the teacher-as-authority. So – writers pose questions, dig in the mud, come back, hold up shiny filthy magic, and maybe we enjoy what we do, enjoy what we see, hear, read.  I think its celebratory and disruptive – both.

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

I like a lot of feedback from friends.  I like knowing there is someone who is going to read the work and reflect some elements of it back to me. If I work with an editor, they are generally sympathetic to what I am attempting to do, but might shout at me with a whisper. I work as an editor myself, so I am always editing – I sometimes need someone to tell me to stop editing and even roll the drafts back a bit, as I might be left sometimes with only termite dust. But dust and sand are also very interesting. And can be quite clever when glued back together.

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

Never give up.

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

Well, for me it’s both a joy and a conundrum.  I love genre-switching; boundaries are melting. My work, especially recently,  is moving more and more to hybrid and convergence – choral poems, multiplicity of chattering voices, incorporating elements that are essayistic, theatrical. I tend to write with a certain broken, ruptured staccato. I am always drawn to the musicality and the specifics of word order and – an almost self-consciousness with regard to the presence of structure.  I don’t want the Word to disappear into the background – for me it’s a canvas of forefront and colour, language as texture and musical score, no matter whether I’m writing a review of a book or creating a performance piece.

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 like writing. I’m obsessed with writing.  A good day is a day when I spend a lot of time writing. I carry a notebook with me. I sleep with a notebook. Writing necessarily wakes me up to come dance at 3 a.m. for a few hours. I like to break routine and I like continuity and an almost ritual process – go somewhere –write in an unusual places (busses, train stations, cafes, the weight room of the gym) and/or this is a notebook day, this is a write and draw day, this is a work on a poem that had its origins on the computer screen moment. I like to find old text books and pull ideas from them, cut them up, draw in them – to get started, I’ll read for a while, talk to friends, post some music and share it w/ colleagues.

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

I have always had multiple focus – drawing and painting, writing and photo-based art-making. The new book, Audacity of Form , for example, contains my writing as well as a drawing. The work of Cathy Daley, a Toronto-based visual artist, and Julia Skop,  a brilliant emotional photographer who lives in New Orleans are central to the book and inspirational to its design.  

Why do I mention this – I’ve always been inspired by visual art, theatre, photography, music that contains and pushes against boundaries.   Cy Twombly, John Cage,  Carolee Schneemann, Nancy Spero, Ida Applebroog; Frank O’ Hara, John Ashbery, Anne Waldman, Nazim Hikmet, Thomas McGrath, Fred Wah, Tyehinba Jess, Adonis;  Shostakovich, Northern Soul, free jazz: Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Robert Wilson’s performance pieces, Robert Frank’s photos, Beckett,  ambient field recordings -- I could go on and on.

 If I can’t write I listen to music or I draw or I work with photos. Sparks fly back and forth inter-disciplinary, or intra-disciplinary.  I used to be confused about which form I most preferred to work in – now I see how to juxtapose and combine and ricochet from one to the other.  

The other thing I do when I am stalled – is I work out – I wasn’t able to do that for so long – for health reasons -- now I am able to run and I find it very liberating and meditative – I like to run wherever I am, but I love running in Toronto. I make my way down to the lake and follow it west or east and then back up into the texture of neighbourhoods – it is another kind of ‘inspiration’

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Daffodils and lavender.

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?

Yes – well, as above.   Visual art,  music.

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

I read a lot – voluminously – I love books. I may not read an entire book. I read for textures, for the specificities of insight and individual voice.  Its too wide ranging and numerous to name but I like writing that is investigatory and has formal visual acuity

 I also like being part of a community. Who are my friends reading? What are my friends writing?  I think its important to not be isolated, to be part of the lifeworld of my peers,  both locally and in an expanded sense.

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

Run a full marathon. Walk the Pacific Coast Highway.  Do a reading in Halifax where my mother was born. Go to the Venice Biennale. Spend some time in Paris, France.

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?

Well – I would have loved to be a ballerina.

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

I don’t know – I studied acting but I was always writing.  As a child I was writing and drawing and playing Chuck Berry and Hank Thomson records over and over and pretending to be travelling. I’d go roll around in meadows and preen in my saddle shoes in rock gardens. I studied with the Wooster Group in NY, and I love the theatre. But to me it’s all ‘writing’. I see ‘writing’ as a kinetic activity set in other modalities that emerges out of my particular time and space and being in the world, this go round.

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

Film:  Godard’s Le livred’image/The Image Book & Lynn Sachs and Lizzie Olesker’s deft hybrid documentary The Washing Society, about laundrymat workers, now touring festivals internationally.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’m working on collaborations with Moira J. Saucer, a poet based in Alabama.  We are exploring ghost-memories.  I am very interested right now in collaboration – with other poets, with translators, with visual artists. I might do the writing, I might make the art work.  & I’m continuing to work on a series of family poems – mostly now I am dealing with ancestors (in terms of family history) and our family’s displacement and loss – mid 20th century Holocaust; the involvement that my refugee-immigrant grandparents had in helping other refugees. I’m exploring different ways to extend upon Audacity of Form, its endless unfolding layers. I’m trying to update from where I was to where I am and where I am going. It’s an endless process of negotiation – like tape wrapped around wire.