Sunday, August 07, 2022

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Daniel Sarah Karasik

Daniel Sarah Karasik (they/them) is the author of five previous books, including the poetry collection Hungry and the short story collection Faithful and Other Stories. Their work has been recognized with the Toronto Arts Foundation’s Emerging Artist Award, the CBC Short Story Prize, and the Canadian Jewish Playwriting Award. They organize with the network Artists for Climate & Migrant Justice and Indigenous Sovereignty (ACMJIS), among other groups, and are the founding managing editor of Midnight Sun, a magazine of socialist strategy, analysis, and culture. They live in Toronto.

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 felt really validating to see my work published for the first time in book form! I had a play included in an anthology of five plays when I was about 21, republished a few years later in a book of which I was the sole author, and both those experiences were super encouraging. I'd say my work these days is a lot more overtly political (and gayer), and my expectations for its reception more modest. I no longer expect or hope a book's publication might change my life; mainly I hope that my writing gives pleasure or consolation to some people, and maybe opens up for those people a few slender spaces of possibility for different ways of thinking and feeling and being in the world.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I think I actually came to fiction and drama first—was writing in both of those forms from the time I was a little kid. Started writing poetry in earnest (and earnestly!) as a teenager, wrote a lot of poems in my late teens and early 20s with the encouragement of a couple of poetry mentors (the poet Robyn Sarah, who edited my first published poetry collection, and the poet Al Moritz, who was my professor at U of T), and then pretty much stopped writing poetry for several years. Started again five-ish years ago, motivated by an intuition that poetry could hold in a fruitful way the political contradictions I was grappling with, and the result became Plenitude.

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 really varies...any book-length project I've published has been the result of many years of work (in one case, more than a decade's intermittent work), but often I write early drafts in pretty concentrated bursts. And then revise for ages. The final shape of the work usually bears a family resemblance to its first drafts, but frequently it has completely different emphases. And it's often much briefer—I tend to cut my early drafts a ton, like by more than half, especially when working in prose forms.

4 - Where does a poem or work of fiction 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?

With poems, mostly the first scenario you mention: short pieces that end up combining. Or at least that's been the case so far. There are a few poems in Plenitude that I wrote after I'd figured out the book's basic texture and dimensions, though, poems I wrote to bridge a gap or serve some other function specifically in the context of that manuscript. With fiction and non-fiction, I've at least tried/am trying to write books conceived from the start as books, but my habit of cutting my prose down to like a third of its original length sometimes makes that intention tricky to sustain!

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I think I like those, yeah! I like performance, except for when I don't. I miss the minutes before and after public readings, when you could talk to people, and sometimes they'd even say they liked your reading. The pandemic has made that all feel monumental and rare. I hope it can happen again soon, and safely enough.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I'm interested in making communist literature that's also necessarily engaged with the question of what "communist literature" means, or might be stirred to mean, in a context where capitalism and liberalism structure most cultural production in profound, often subtle ways. Ultimately I think the question a communist literature poses is the old philosophical question of the good life, i.e. what a good life amounts to and how we might live one, but where the good life's conditions of possibility are defined politically at every turn: not just the individual "what should I do?", but also the collective "what is to be done?"

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Oppositional. Not as a solitary gesture of opposition, though, but in relationship with collective forms of opposition. My understanding of culture is marxist insofar as I don't think culture is autonomous, but that it's always more or less the flower of a particular soil, of specific historical material conditions, and for us that soil is, broadly speaking, white supremacist cishetero-patriarchal settler-colonial capitalism. That's the soil even of the culture that decries the soil, the flower that rebukes its roots. So, to my mind, the project of making art needs to be in active conversation and collaboration with other political projects, like social movements, that fight to transform the broader structural and ideological conditions out of which art and culture grow. (In reality it's almost certainly more of a complicated feedback loop than that description suggests, but so often we're faced with sentimental overstatement in the opposite direction—claims about art and culture's inherent, independent power to transform the world and change minds—that I'll let my slightly one-sided account stand as a counterballast lol!)

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

Both. I'm very particular, often obsessive about details, and also I need help. (I feel that way both as a writer and as an editor, actually.) The editorial process for Plenitude, with editor A. Light Zachary, was a good one: careful, detail-minded, collaborative. In general I feel like it's important to work with an editor who shares a decent number of your core political and aesthetic commitments, or the process is liable to be difficult in the wrong ways. Substantive political and aesthetic disagreements can too easily masquerade as problems of form, "objective" technical problems that need fixing rather than subjective conflicts over how the world and language should be.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Hm...I feel like by repeating the advice I'd be effectively giving the advice, and I don't feel qualified to give advice :)

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to plays)? What do you see as the appeal?
Easy because capricious. The appeal is partly about what those forms can do, as forms—e.g. the way I can express an idea or a feeling in verse without the need to build narrative scaffolding around it, and without the form inspiring a reader's expectation that I'll do so. Also partly about routes for reaching different audiences: I sort of have this sense that poems are for everybody, since reading one is so low-commitment, in a way that's less true of, say, novels and plays...which may be read and viewed more/most often by people who are already in the habit of reading novels and watching plays? Maybe? Not sure, but I have thoughts like that sometimes.

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 have no writing routine tbh. I write in big bursts and then nothing at all for a while. But even that's not consistent, since sometimes I maintain a steady routine for the length of a given project—but not beyond it. A typical day for me begins in the afternoon. I'm working on it.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
What's happening in the world and its implications and how I feel about it.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Fragrancelessness. Which is probably in fact fragrance unnoticed, passing as neutral.

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 actually find it kind of frustrating and alienating when books come from (are responses to) books more than they come from (are responses to) the world! Though clearly it's always both/and—a question of proportion. I feel like it's good for literature to be influenced by all those categories of experience you name (nature, music, etc.) and also by, like, the direct data of experience, history, work, love, other people. And other books, but mainly insofar as they express those data or helpful, beautiful interpretations of them.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I feel like I'm slowly forgetting how to read, but the part of me that still remembers how to read would say Anne Boyer, Wendy Trevino, Mariame Kaba, Casey Plett, Kai Cheng Thom...and I finally read The Black Jacobins just recently, the Trinidadian marxist C.L.R. James's famous study of the Haitian Revolution, which I found really exhilarating.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Experience more of the world ("travel" approximates but doesn't fully capture what I mean). Plant deeper roots, in a way that helps me to feel safer and more nourished more often. Resolve or better negotiate the contradiction between those two wants.

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?
Probably criminal defence or labour law. I like parsing arguments in detail and I hate cruelty, even and especially when the cruelty is state-sanctioned or otherwise socially naturalized as inevitable or just. Law seems like a good fit for that temperament. Or a terrible one, since bourgeois law is far less about justice than it is about power. Good or terrible. So I hedge that bet by not doing law.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
An overall tendency to make cautious, responsible small choices and reckless, irresponsible big ones.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I loved Torrey Peters's Detransition, Baby. I haven't watched many films during the pandemic, so I guess I'll stick with my circa-2019 answer to the second question: Parasite.

20 - What are you currently working on?
I'm pretty busy with editing Midnight Sun Magazine, and I've been surprised by how little mental space that work leaves me for my own writing. But I'm also very (very) slowly chipping away at a book of non-fiction, fragmentary reflections on what it means to have/do revolutionary socialist politics today in a way that isn't purely symbolic or gestural but also acts on the world. It's looking like it might end up as a work of prose poetry—symbolic and gestural :) We'll see.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Saturday, August 06, 2022

Stan Dragland (December 2, 1942 – August 2, 2022)

Sad to hear, via Toronto poet Ronna Bloom, that novelist, poet and literary critic Stan Dragland died earlier this week, half-through his eightieth year. As Stephen Brockwell responded to the news over email: “He was instrumental in shaping my perceptions of Canadian poetry. An open hearted, curious reader and writer.” Most probably already know that Dragland spent his teaching career the English Department at University of Western Ontario, where he remained until retirement (becoming Professor Emeritus), during which he was a co-founding editor and publisher of Brick Books (with Don McKay), a position he served until not that long ago, as well as a founding editor and publisher of Brick: A Literary Journal (with Jean McKay). After retirement, he relocated to St. John’s, Newfoundland and built a home with the writer and Pedlar Press publisher Beth Follett. He also published a stack of incredible books: if you look at his Wikipedia page, you can find a list of his titles, any and all of which I would highly recommend (I’ve even reviewed a few of them here and here; and mentioned him and his work in essays here and here).

As I’ve said elsewhere, I’ve always envied Stan Dragland’s ease with literary criticism; how he articulates the interconnectivity of reading, thinking, literature and living in the world in terms deceptively simple, deeply complex, and incredibly precise. I’ve envied his sentences, and how his prose connects seemingly unconnected thoughts, ideas and passages into highly complex and intelligent arguments that manage to collage with an almost folksy and deceptive ease (a quality his critical prose shares with the poetry of Phil Hall). If the 1960s and 70s saw George Bowering as one of the most prolific reviewers of Canadian poetry, and, as many have said, Frank Davey was our finest literary critic during the same period, Stan Dragland would emerge out of those years as a literary critic with an open and inviting heart, displaying a deep and abiding love for the materials he chose to explore. It was through Dragland’s eyes that I first understood just how wide-ranging criticism could be, as he brought in a myriad of thoughts, references and personal reflections to craft a criticism far more astute, and more intimate, than anything else out there.

I caught a second-hand copy of his Journeys Through Bookland and Other Passages (Coach House Press, 1984) rather early in my twentysomething explorations, and was struck by his depth, composing perfect sentences of pure craft. It was through Dragland that I was allowed a further view into the work of writers such as Robert Kroetsch, Elizabeth Hay, Phil Hall, Lisa Moore and Margaret Avison. I’ve probably read through that collection a good dozen times, even taking it with me as part of reading tours, rereading his thoughts on Kroetsch, for example, some twenty years ago on the overnight passenger Via Train heading west beyond Winnipeg. Given how often I’ve picked it up over the years, it’s never where it should be on the shelf, and always takes forever to unearth. I can’t even figure out where it currently is, now that I want to look at it again. Instead, I offer an early paragraph of his more recent The Bricoleur & His Sentences (Pedlar Press, 2014) [see my review of such here]:

            Even casual reflection shows that the business of character, biography or autobiography, is a lot more complicated than a person might think. I got to thinking about this when Michael Ondaatje asked me to send him my bundle of sentences, because it’s personal and quirky and not meant to be shared without commentary. I began to think of it as a kind of postcard taped to the fridge. What would Michael and Mary Oliver and the barbershop dog think of it? I foresaw scratching of the head. Then I began to think about the word “bricoleur” as regularly applied to me by Don McKay. Might it fit not only my gathering and making of odd things, but also my puddle-jumping mind? Does it describe me all too well? This is not modesty. I think better sideways or in circles than straight on, so I hand my best attempts to others then do what I can to fix the flaws they spot. Do not imagine that this comes direct from me to you.

Dragland was kind enough to offer a reworked excerpt of The Difficult (2019) for my recent festschrift for Phil Hall, which included information in his author biography about a forthcoming title. As he wrote: “James Reaney on the Grid: An Essay will appear in 2022.”

Already some other tribute pieces have posted as well, such as over at Book*hug, and two poems by Ronna Bloom.

Condolences to his friends and family, including his children, and to Beth.

Friday, August 05, 2022

Spotlight series #76 : Laura Kerr

The seventy-sixth in my monthly "spotlight" series, each featuring a different poet with a short statement and a new poem or two, is now online, featuring Canadian visual artist and poet Laura Kerr.

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, Brooklyn poet-filmmaker Stephanie Gray, Vernon, BC poet Kerry Gilbert, South Carolina poet and translator Lindsay Turner, Vancouver poet and editor Adèle Barclay, Thorold, Ontario poet Franco Cortese, Ottawa poet Conyer Clayton, Lawrence, Kansas poet Megan Kaminski, Ottawa poet and fiction writer Frances Boyle, Ithica, NY poet, editor and publisher Marty Cain, New York City poet Amanda Deutch, Iranian-born and Toronto-based writer/translator Khashayar Mohammadi, Mendocino County writer, librarian, and a visual artist Melissa Eleftherion, Ottawa poet and editor Sarah MacDonell, Montreal poet Simina Banu, Canadian-born UK-based artist, writer, and practice-led researcher J. R. Carpenter, Toronto poet MLA Chernoff, Boise, Idaho poet and critic Martin Corless-Smith, Canadian poet and fiction writer Erin Emily Ann Vance, Toronto poet, editor and publisher Kate Siklosi, Fredericton poet Matthew Gwathmey, Canadian poet Peter Jaeger, Birmingham, Alabama poet and editor Alina Stefanescu, Waterloo, Ontario poet Chris Banks, Chicago poet and editor Carrie Olivia Adams, Vancouver poet and editor Danielle Lafrance, Toronto-based poet and literary critic Dale Martin Smith, American poet, scholar and book-maker Genevieve Kaplan, Toronto-based poet, editor and critic ryan fitzpatrick, American poet and editor Carleen Tibbetts, British Columbia poet nathan dueck, Tiohtiá:ke-based sick slick, poet/critic em/ilie kneifel, writer, translator and lecturer Mark Tardi, New Mexico poet Kōan Anne Brink, Winnipeg poet, editor and critic Melanie Dennis Unrau, Vancouver poet, editor and critic Stephen Collis, poet and social justice coach Aja Couchois Duncan, Colorado poet Sara Renee Marshall, Toronto writer Bahar Orang, Ottawa writer Matthew Firth, Victoria poet Saba Pakdel, Winnipeg poet Julian Day, Ottawa poet, writer and performer nina jane drystek and Comox BC poet Jamie Sharpe.
The whole series can be found online here.

Thursday, August 04, 2022

Wednesday, August 03, 2022

Emma Healey, Best Young Woman Job Book: A Memoir


My mother’s play is co-written with two of her best friends. Each woman plays a fictionalized version of herself, stalking the stage in red lipstick and a black cocktail dress. Sometimes they speak all in one voice like a Greek chorus; other times, they split apart to deliver individual monologues.
Each of the three characters has recently ended a significant relationship—with a boyfriend, a live-in partner and a husband, respectively. My mother plays an anxious, obsessive, organized single mother who’s in the middle of divorcing the father of her child. The thesis of the show is that with time, even the worst parts of your life can become just a story. All you have to do is tell it again and again.

I’m very charmed and delighted by Toronto poet and critic Emma Healey’s latest, Best Young Woman Job Book: A Memoir (Toronto ON: Random House Canada, 2022), a particular kind of coming-of-age storytelling that is vibrant, evocative in detail and rich in propulsive storytelling. Healey is the author of two poetry collections—Begin with the End in Mind (ARP Books, 2012) and stereoblind (Toronto ON: Anansi, 2018) [see my review of such here]—and her shift from prose poem into memoir displays a clear sense of narrative and music throughout her sentences. There is a funny, witty wealth of description to her prose, as she writes of being the daughter of two playwrights, and being raised by her single mother, who both wrote plays and acted throughout her childhood. There is something fascinating about the ways in which Healey writes of her experiences around language, performance and writing through these connections, and Healey is a natural storyteller, as she tells a variety of stories that a number of literary folk might catch echoes of, but told in a way to leave out certain kinds of specifics (names, locations). It is as though to become specific would take away from the purpose of the stories herself: to articulate those experiences and how she moved through them. She writes of family, worthwhile and terrible jobs (including in publishing) and relationships, including a toxic and even abusive relationship or two, and how these affected her, and what she may have garnered from each of them, as well as what she might, in the end, have been left with. These are the facts that exist behind the text, and the focus of her narrative is far more on a young woman navigating the world, showing elements of fearlessness, apathy, empathy, depression, youthful carelessness and a slow, continuous push to move forward and beyond all the chaos into the positive. Honestly, this is a delightful read by a seriously talented writer; I can’t really say anything else beyond that.