Sunday, February 16, 2020



This was how we spoke to the distant flicker. Our silence hydrated a speaker. Its form came to us in pieces culled from the canopic night. We wore diagnostic dust in a book that believed only in ablutions. We dried slowly. Now what our sky is like is like a hospital for the sun.

Denver, Colorado poet Eric Baus’ latest full-length poetry title is HOW I BECAME A HUM (Portland OR/Denver CO: Octopus Books, 2019). Baus is very much a poet of sentences (a term I have utilized previously referencing the works of Rosmarie Waldrop and Lisa Robertson), and how they accumulate, composing prose poems that occasionally run up against the line of what might be considered a more straightforward prose. It might sound fairly obvious, and even a non-descriptor, but his poems very much are built upon how one sentence follows another and then another.

The author of four previous full-length collections—The To Sound, winner of the Verse Prize (Wave Books, 2004), Tuned Droves (Octopus Books, 2009) [see my review of such here], Scared Text, winner of the Colorado Prize for Poetry (Center for Literary Publishing, 2011) [see my review of such here] and The Tranquilized Tongue (City Lights 2014) [see my review of such here]—as well as several chapbooks, Baus remains on the side of the lyric poetic rather than any narrative prose-line. Some have described his work as surreal, but I would also suggest Baus composes far more on the “poem” side of the prose poem line than, say, a writer such as the late Russell Edson; despite being considered one of the greats of the American prose poem, much of what I’ve seen of his work actually wrote more on the side of the postcard story than the lyric. The book is structured in eight sections—“The Rain of the Ice,” “Bad Shadow,” “The Datura Plains,” “Plan for a Lake on the Ceiling of a Cinema,” “Wolfram Frock,” “The Mesmerized Moth,” “Autonomic Mica” and “How I Became a Hum”—the first of which, in the spirit of full disclosure, appeared previously as a chapbook through above/ground press, a section he references in a 2019 interview with Ian Lockaby for NDR:

I have a section and a poem in the book called “The Rain of the Ice,” which is a micro-erasure of the title of the essay “The Grain of the Voice” by Roland Barthes. One of the things I like about Barthes’s essay is how he argues that instead of further developing our critical vocabulary around music (creating more and more descriptive language) we should instead focus on aspects of sound that we unconsciously filter and flatten out. He writes: “the ‘grain’ is the body in the voice as it sings, the hand as it writes, the limb as it performs.” I like that impulse a lot—to shift the boundaries of the thing being studied as a transformative act. By erasing a few letters in his title, I’m thinking about the fluid state embedded within the solid state—the “rain” that is always part of “ice”—and, in some oblique way, gesturing toward slipping outside of expected ways of talking about the world and about experience.

In the poem “Bad Shadow,” I found a way to graft in language from a blurb I wrote for Richard Froude’s book The Passenger: “Richard Froude was grown from film stills. Above all he was a mirror. Much of his soil was gathered from conversation. Nothing is outside the screen. His house was built entirely of redirected rivers. This caused a book of between, a book of plywood and polymers, a book we are never finished reading.” And I turned it into this passage: “Above all we were was a mirror. Much of our soil was gathered from conversation. Nothing is behind the screen. Our mouth was built entirely of redirected rivers. This caused a book of between, a house of plywood and polymers, a city we were never outside of.” I try to find as many ways as possible of repurposing and re-framing language. I tend not to make references in a conventional way, where I’m signaling the content or ideas of another work directly, and instead I prefer to zero in on some granular aspect, some tonality of the thing that I’m thinking about, and use that to build language structures that take on a character of their own.

The sections in the collection move through both sections as suites of untitled poems in sequence, and sections of stand-alone, individual poems. In certain ways, the differences between sections, structurally, could be seen as both very wide (a section of poems against a section-as-sequence), and very minimal (a sequence of poems with titles against a sequence of untitled poems). Is there a difference? I suspect, and even prefer, that it might not even matter, although the sections sans titles infer a slightly stronger connection between poems than the other sections, but this might exist only in my imagination. Either way, the effect of his poems are stunning, with the lyric inference sweeping up against and away from meaning, allowing the poem to be propelled by tone and language, words set up against further words for remarkable effect, and lines composed with both a lightness and great density.


My brother’s lungs had synthesized a miniature sun. The swollen clouds collated. The blast’s grammar washed through his flickering cells. He bore storming twins. They wore lead.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Isabel Sobral Campos

Isabel Sobral Campos is the author of the poetry collection Your Person Doesn’t Belong to You (Vegetarian Alcoholic Press, 2018), and the chapbooks Material (No, Dear and Small Anchor Press, 2015), You Will Be Made of Stone (dancing girl press, 2018) and Autobiographical Ecology (above/ground press, 2019). Chapbooks are forthcoming with Sutra Press and The Magnificent Field. She is the co-founder of the Sputnik & Fizzle publishing series.

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?

The poems of my first chapbook feel ethereal when I read them now, as if they are swimming toward something they never quite reach. That quality of reaching-toward is still present in my current work, and also the idea of poems as musical scores—each poem returns where other poems have been, not in a linear way but in a messy circuitous manner. My first chapbook was an unforgettable experience. The three women involved in its production, Alex Cuff, Jen Hyde, and Emily Brandt, were amazingly supportive. I have been very fortunate with the people I meant through publishing. Freddy LaForce from Vegetarian Alcoholic Press being another person with whom was very rewarding to work.

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

I tried writing fiction before poetry but always ended up fragmenting the writing, organizing it in vignettes. I arrived late to poetry (I think) perhaps because of writing creatively in a borrowed language. I didn’t think it would be possible. While I now know plenty of models for translingualism or bilingual writers, for a long time, I wasn’t aware of them. Furthermore, I had little understanding of contemporary Anglophone writing. So, one day I was reading Will Alexander’s Compression & Purity. I remember thinking “I’m just going to write whatever I want.” It sounds silly, but it was only then that I realized I had been tied to ideas about writing that didn’t excite me. I wrote my first poems shortly after.

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 a very slow writer. I have to write a bit every day. Otherwise, it won’t come at all. Usually, a manuscript results from being able to commit daily time to writing. If I study the idea too much or stop to take notes or research, or whatever, I often lose interest. So, I try to write as much as I can. Then I stop and rewrite quite a bit.

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 tend to write long poems. I would say my first poetry collection is a long dramatic monologue divided into sections. The manuscript I am working on now, for example, is a musical score in two parts. So, I tend to write pieces that build on each other, echoing one another semantically and rhythmically.

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

Yes! I do. Readings allow me to hear my work more accurately. I wish I could read every week. 

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?

Writing has to be attentive to the ideological functions of words, tropes, languages. Poems should destabilize messages that have ossified and become corrosive. They should be attuned to the causticness of normative and normalizing conceptions. What normalizes a standard usually expresses the vision of a power group that oppresses. A poem has the capacity to withstand ideology.

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 suppose writing uplifts attention from the mud of daily life. It zooms in on the experiential potential we all possess, but that keeps getting buried and neglected. Some books speak truths, so they actively oppose the harm of false, hateful ideas. Some books resurrect our ability to imagine and attempt transforming what oppresses us. Some books make us feel less lonely. I suppose there isn’t a single role but that they are all connected with achieving the best possible iteration of an embodied life.

Writers (whenever possible) should also try to promote other writers through publishing and reviewing. I recognize that this takes time, effort, as well as entails free labor.

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

I do not find working with editors difficult at all. I wish I had more opportunities to do so. I love to collaborate, and also, when others make me verbalize why I made certain choices.

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

I am not sure whether I have a single piece of advice to share. I prefer to couch this question in terms of teachers. Anselm Berrigan taught me more than anyone, but it had something to do with the quiet and generous way he taught me to hear myself more clearly. He modeled listening very well.

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 write in the mornings. It’s the first thing I do when I sit at my desk. As the day progresses, my mind feels cluttered with thoughts that interfere with writing.

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

It depends on the project. I’ll read the books that have informed or inspired the work I am writing and re-read what I have in order to discover the flow of a particular project.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Eucalyptus trees.

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?

Music and visual arts. I write in rhythmic forms. I am interested when poems and images coalesce with rhythms.

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

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

I would like to translate, write performance pieces, and collaborate with other writers or artists.

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 can’t imagine being without books. I could be an archivist of some sort. I often wonder whether I shouldn’t be working in the non-profit activist world with environmental organizations or incarcerated people’s advocacy groups.

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

I feel that writing is part of me: it shapes me. I don’t think I ever felt like this toward any other activity.

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

19 - What are you currently working on?

I am working on a manuscript entitled How to Make Words of Rubble. What if the choral ode sections of Greek tragedy stood alone as form? This is one of the manuscript's formal premises. The other is the musical score. One night I dreamt that a sudden gust of wind stole my daughter away. I realized this dream was connected to news that another hurricane of unprecedented force was approaching the US. In the dream, I saw my daughter from the standpoint of my own disappearance. These poems emerged from this dream and these feelings. Grendel's mother from Beowulf became a helpful image to speak of maternal grief and the maternal body. Section II of the manuscript integrates old English words that capture the gist of how Grendel's mother is presented in the epic.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Moez Surani, Are the Rivers in Your Poems Real

When poets write admiringly
of this life, this earth,

I sometimes think
they must have missed
these governments, these leaning institutions, the vectors of power.

And I think, Ah, they are writing a poem
that will go observation, elaboration,
turn a corner, and continue its passage
to a homily.

Well, fine. (“DAY”)

Canadian poet Moez Surani’s fourth full-length poetry title is Are the Rivers in Your Poems Real (Toronto ON: Book*hug, 2019), a poetry collection constructed as a suite of lyric meditations and criticisms on a wide range of political, social and cultural moments, movements and collisions. Surani speaks of globalism and its effects, and who we might, and even have, become. Through thirty extended poems that play with a variety of structures and styles, Surani writes on, around and through fading empires, rivers, western art, days he was in love, John and Yoko, multiple geographies, ballads, discoveries, visions, museums and cigarettes, and even a sequence titled “POEMS TO BE PERFORMED BY KEVIN / MCPHERSON ECKHOFF, WITH OR WITHOUT / A GREEN ELFIN MASK,” that includes:

(iii. Poems to Transcend)

He says, one by one, each of the words that he has avoided using in his published work. This catalogue of vulgarity is his notion of bad taste and defines his art. having employed each of these words aloud in a performance, he has committed artistic suicide, destroying that previous self and its division of good and bad taste.

I like the expansiveness of these poems, each composed, in their individual ways, as poetic lectures, and his poems make me curious to see what Surani might be capable of through pieces that lean even further into lyric prose essays or lectures, as he writes, as part of the opening, title poem: “Then I am the river, and the stones and twists / are those I have loved, decisions I have made. // These categorical things are useless. Nothing is.” Published on the heels of his three prior collections—Reticent Bodies (Hamilton ON: Wolsak and Wynn, 2009), Floating Life (Wolsak and Wynn, 2012) and حملة Operación Opération Operation Oперация (Book*hug, 2016)—Are the Rivers in Your Poems Real is a book of thoughtful, serious play, one that carries a meditative weight but isn’t overwhelmed by it. As he writes in the second of the quintet of sections in “LULLABY FOR A WANING EMPIRE”:

Character is a waning thing.
I admire with age. And though
Temptations surround me, no tasty fling
is worth a thing I decide upon. Besides,
the events enhance us—birthdays, seasons, holiday meals—
if not for the calendar, I would be though
with time. It sweeps and clicks. I don’t
want to leave. Though my life, at times,
is quite plain. There are ideas
that interest me and dreams I have and songs
that seem to find me and, though stoic, breed their spirit
so thoroughly through my veins that with some sign of my body
I betray to others that all is not
fine with me. It must be
in the way I glance at things.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Sandra Simonds, Atopia

I am a terrible American
So suicidal
I am a terrible, suicidal American
who throws herself into your desiccated bank vaults
Yet I do not want America to kill me before I kill myself
I can’t stand my positive acquisitions
I throw them to the dogs like marrowless bones
I can’t stand my drinking
I hate the fires of money
I feel no nationalism
I feel no nationalism in my heart, my hands, my brain, or my pussy
I myself am worse than a rogue state
I feel peeled away from society
I will never leave my bed
I want to die in bed with the covers over my head

Tallahassee, Florida poet Sandra Simonds’ latest full-length poetry title is Atopia (Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2019), and the first of hers I’ve properly spent any time with. The author of a handful of poetry chapbooks, Simonds is the author of six previous full-length collections: Warsaw Bikini (Bloof Books, 2009), Mother Was a Tragic Girl (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2012), The Sonnets (Bloof Books, 2014), Further Problems with Pleasure (University of Akron Press, 2017), Steal It Back (Saturnalia Books, 2015) and Orlando (Wave Books, 2018). Atopia is constructed as a lyric suite, assembled as an accumulation of untitled stand-alone poems that average roughly a page in length, that each respond to elements of contemporary American politics and the results of such from the ground level. Wikipedia informs that “atopia” refers to, among other things, “a society which does not have territorial borders,” and “an inhospitable location that cannot be turned into a dwelling-place,” and Simonds’ Atopia is a book that responds to those descriptions, existing as a book of protest, and of response to uncertainty and political upheavals prompted by and around American President Donald J. Trump’s first term of office.

Look at the people we have on our side:
Walter Benjamin is on our side
Hannah Arendt is on our side
James Baldwin is on our side
Sandra, they are all dead
But they are on our side
The other people,
the capitalists, who do they have?
They don’t have anyone
All of their ideas are shit
Listen, we have Brecht
I was going crazy
I picked up my phone
I was talking to Maged

            Utopia             Utopia
      Utopia       Utopia
Utopia                               Utopia 

Maged is moving from Seattle
to Atlanta to be closer to his son

I dream of the New Jerusalem of love,
an Eden of sparks from the mouth of the rose cult

The book opens with a short lyric on America as a cage, writing: “Baudelaire said / Poe thought America was one giant cage. / To the poet, a nation is one big cage. / And isn’t the nation mostly filled with air? / Try to put a cage around your dream. / The cage escapes the dream. / I see it streak and stream.” The idea of the “cage” of America, or that holds America, runs throughout the collection, and Atopia exists a book of enormous anxiety and frustration, writing her attempts at a normal life around fascism, climate emergency and the destructive elements of capitalism and nationalism, and what kind of world her children are growing into. She writes: “That you came to me in those dreams and I tried not to be afraid / of you / That the dreams were never about the world falling apart as so / many dreamed / That this is not the apocalypse and we both know this / That someone will ask who the ‘you’ of the poem is seriously / leave me alone [.]” Atopia writes out optimism, pessimism, exhaustion and potential action, writing around the potential, as well as the failure, of poetry, theory and art on political and social change, even as some of her poems write directly to (akin to his After Lorca, composing epistolary poems “to” Federico Garcia Lorca, which allowed him to speak of and about multiple other subjects), the late American poet Jack Spicer. She writes: “Sir, my poems are expensive; they cost me my life.” Simonds composes her poems in dialogue with social media, political speech and news reports, and more directly, with friends, neighbours and her two small children. “‘I’m the opposite of racist,’ my son declares, / ‘all my friends are black.’ My son / is eight and white and so we talk / about the structure, / structural racism, this structure, / that one, one cage, another, and another, / as we walk in circles, in a figure eight, / on the longleaf pine forest loop.” In an undated interview for The Bennington Review around her then-newly published Orlando, conducted by Matthew Tuckner, she speaks on Atopia, then still a work-in-progress:

I’m still working to put Atopia together—it’s a pretty overtly political book about how everyday life is informed by the political events since Trump was elected. I think we are all feeling that trauma so the book has been a way to deal with that—how to raise kids in this era, but not from the perspective of liberal, white self-absorbed trauma. I’m a Marxist-Feminist and believe that capitalism needs to be dismantled and all of my books have this underlying political perspective. I wonder if I would have written the same Atopia if Hillary Clinton was elected—it’s certainly plausible.