Sunday, September 15, 2019

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Bola Opaleke

Bola Opaleke is a Nigerian-Canadian poet. His first poetry collection was published in 2012. A Pushcart Prize Nominee, Bola's poetry has appeared in many international publications, both in print and online. He lives in Manitoba with his young family. Find out more at

How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

The book changed my life in the sense that it brought some new attention to my work, and by doing so made even more people show interest in my craft. Since my last published book, I have met and been inspired by a whole lot of brilliant writers and mentors.

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

I embraced poetry very early in life, even when I hardly knew what ‘poetry’ was. In nursery rhymes I was always thrilled by the choice of words and their musical tunes. I saw how poets talk about different things in different ways, so unlike how everyone else talked about those things, and I wanted to do the same thing.

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 is “all of the above”. Sometimes works come together quickly, other times they come slow. The most important thing for me is the completeness of it. If I feel like it’s the sixth day of the creation then I take the seventh off. Job done. But that often takes a while. Mostly, there’s always room for revision.

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?

My work does not follow a particular order. Sometimes it begins from the end actually. Other times I work my way upward. A poem, for me, could start with a line or a brilliant quote from someone. It could be something I just heard on the news or saw in a movie.

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

Yes. I enjoy doing readings, but I have not been doing a lot of them because of my day job. Writing should be a fulltime job and I just don’t have that luxury at this time. Public reading helps develop a writer’s performance skill. It is great.

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?

Most of my writing attempts to respond to political and socio-economic questions. We can have an argument about the man being a reflection of his own shadow and see how some people would say it is a mis-statement. You’ll always find conversations in my work. Because sometimes the question is actually the answer, and that is the beauty of poetry.

What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

Writers have always been some sort of prophets. The origin of all written arts is in the prophetics. Without a voice reminding all about what was and what might be, there is no chance for what is already is. A writer’s role is to question the questions, show the incompleteness of complete answers. They call what is not as though it was. In a writer, you will find a god, a prophet and a king. I was having a conversation about writers with a sociologist and she asked “you say god, prophet and king, what about a slave?” I told her, a slave is no slave if they can find a pen. A slave with a pen is a king.

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

I have not worked with a lot of editors. But my experience with the ones I have worked with has been great. Yes. I think working with an outside editor is essential - could be difficult, but essential.

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

You don’t know what you’re doing until you know what you’re doing. As an emerging writer I give myself this advice all the time. Sometimes you look at someone’s work (established writer) and think, “How is this a brilliant piece?” An established writer did not just wake up one day and become established. I’m sure you can fill in the gap.

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 absolutely no writing routine. None! Maybe I will one day, but right now, I’m working on becoming a writer.

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

When I’m stalled, I just walk away. Get on with my life. I really don’t walk around with the idea that I have to write anything. For me, the urgency and necessity must be present. We have millions of writers around the world. There is a tendency to think that someone has already written or is writing what you’re trying to write. The difference is the substance of its being; the urgency in your own voice. I am always willing to wait for that voice.

What fragrance reminds you of home?

When I am around trees, alone. Maybe walking in the woods outside the city. It often brings back the memory of the past. The scents of nostalgia.

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. Nature for sure. I just mentioned the trees. Also, movies and music. But books mostly.

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

I watch movies a lot. Epic movies mostly. I love anything that takes me on a journey into the past.

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

Hmmm. Well, there are few. But a very important one is to plant a thousand trees.

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?

If not a writer, I would be a potter.

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

Well, it is cheap. All I need is a pen and a paper (which I don’t even have to buy). Coming from a place where everything is monetized; where voices are vetted; where a protest is met with stiff punishment, trust me, writing is cheap.

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

Last book? The African Child by Camara Laye. I would be reading Jericho Brown’s The Tradition next. And film? Hmm. A Few Good Men. Just can’t get it out of my head!

What are you currently working on?

I am in the process of completing my new book. I have a few publishers/editors already waiting to read it, so there is the extra challenge to make it “not a disappointment”.

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.