Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Emily Pettit, Blue Flame


Actresses in their dressing rooms,
ambassadors. Undoing distinctions
between body and environment.
A woman standing in the bath.
A woman drying her feet. reading
after the bath. A lion in the pan.
Not giving a damn about your
demons. Or loving them. Naming
them. Try it with your mouth,
to make a better sound and another
better sound. You start doing it to
stop feeling so much and you keep
doing it to keep feeling so much.

Given how much I enjoyed American poet Emily Pettit’s debut, Goat in the Snow (Birds, LLC, 2012) [see my review of such here], I was pleased to hear of her second collection, Blue Flame (Pittsburgh PA: Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2019). A few years ago, I compiled an informal list of contemporary American poets I’d noticed who were composing tight, observational lyrics, many of which were composed as mid-length lines in poems often less than a page long, and often set as a single-stanza block down the page; poets such as Emily Pettit, Bianca Stone, Hailey Higdon, Emily Kendal Frey, Sommer Browning, Anne Cecelia Holmes, Matthea Harvey, Natalie Lyalin, Dorothea Lasky, Amy Lawless, Anne Boyer and the late Hillary Gravendyk. My list is, as most are, rather arbitrary, even as one can see each of them composing first-person narrative lyrics on attempting to navigate the world, some of whom use humour, but all of whom who utilize subversion, distraction, discomfort, comfort and use of the straight phrase, and a blending of lightness against dark. “I tried to tap into the old bitterness / to see if it could teach me anything / about the new bitterness,” Pettit writes, in the poem “AFTER VISION,” “but it was / a wall. A wall is not worth looking at.”

The poems that sit in the first two of Blue Flame’s three numbered sections are composed as single stanzas, composed of mid-length lines and line breaks hard and soft and sometimes jagged, writing elusive and allusive to a point that might sit at the end, sit mid-point, or even beyond the horizon; writing towards an idea, like a thesis. There is a clarity to her thinking that moves across and into unexpected places, but moves in such a way that one immediately trusts the author, even if you, as a reader, might have no idea where you are headed. Her journeys contain wisdoms, uncertainties, anxieties and wrong turns even as lessons are learned. Her poems are sharp, confident and quick, even as she’s reaching through uncertainty, anxiety or restlessness. As she writes in the poem “ALL OF THE ANIMALS WERE THERE”: “I keep my fire in the fire. Except / when I don’t. You learn a pattern. / You learn another pattern. We’re talking / imaginary practice. We’re talking / secret parades.”


I came here to get you excited.
We have an accidental stare down.
No bees, no money. No one says this.
I am so frightening. No one is impressed.
It’s all, a duck’s quack doesn’t echo
and no one knows why. You think
you are whispering when you are not.
We are experts at distributing distorted
information. This is how it might feel,
take hold of something between
your finger and your thumb and twist it
sharply. Make a slight adjustment.
A logical consequence appears
to arrive, a bar, a partition, a stick.
I am hitting rocks with a stick.
What do you believe to be important
points of convergence? Vegetables.
Electricity. The extremely challenging
sky. To show adoration with the eyes.
To say something necessary. I avoid
my eyes. I think I mean it.

The third section is structured as an entirely different entity: a tonal shift as well as her shift from poems set as a single-stanza into a longer sequence of fragments, shifting and stretching her thesis into one more abstract, built out of furthered and accumulated moments.

I look up contrition. It’s up in the air like
legs. I moved my legs, moved my legs,
moved my legs.

Look at how you are moving your legs.
And look

almost maybe nothing

was said.

Composed entirely of a single poem, “HANDS LIKE LIGHTERS,” the sequence appears as a more lyric lyric than the poems throughout the rest of the collection, employing shorter lines and space, a different kind of breath, and a different kind intimacy, both through smallness and the narrator discussing the possibility of becoming truly vulnerable for the sake of an open heart. There is an openness to this poem that is quite lovely, one that ruminates across a new distance; her poems already contained multitudes, and this piece presents an entirely new flavour, one of breath, space and possibility, writing:

I love words.
I thought I hated bodies.

I didn’t know I could love
a body.

I didn’t know I could let
somebody love my body.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

12 or 20 (second series) questions with B. F. Späth

B. F. Späth resides uncomfortably in a remote location, hopelessly surrounded and outnumbered by his loved ones—which include the ghost of a long-deceased cat—amid an impressive collection of unpaid bills. Escape seems unlikely. Firmly believing that everything worthwhile has already occurred, he passes the time by strolling through imaginary amusement parks. He spends his nights in a condition that outwardly resembles sleep, but in fact, is nothing of the sort. He suspects that his life may be based on a true story, and has made it his life's mission to discover the plot—if any.

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?

My first book was Clocks Stopped at a Strange and Savage Hour, 2008, Serious Ink Press. It forced me to give readings onstage (against my will!) at various local venues in NYC. Initially I was petrified, but after a few appearances, I settled down a bit. I began to appreciate the differences between the written and spoken word. I learned a few things about the rhythm of words and how emphasis on certain words can profoundly alter their impact.

My most recent work is a novel, The Sun Temple. This one is much more tightly organized and structured than my previous one. I began to incorporate several techniques such as italicizing a group of words in the text, thereby suggesting that they are actual books. I like the idea of “books” spontaneously and organically emerging from the narrative. I also began to insert brief passages and quotes from antiquity that informed the narrative. And a certain species of dry humor spontaneously began popping up here and there in the story, which served to leaven the often grim and downbeat situation of the narrator.

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

Clocks Stopped is a schizophrenic sort of book: split between short prose stories, and “abstract” poetry. It was perhaps an uneasy relationship. With Sun Temple, I instinctively chose a first-person present-tense narration. It was only in hindsight that I realized how much I had been influenced by writers such as Poe, De Quincey, and others who wrote in this style. I also realized that I had adopted the first-person, drug-confessional narrative made famous by DeQuincey, Burroughs, and others.

Another reason that I chose fiction is that my mind is profoundly disordered!—and is naturally prone to digression, stream-of-consciousness, and flights-of-fancy.

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?

Sun Temple is autobiographical, and concerns experiences that I had in 1992—93. At the time I had written a two-page little piece that chronicled these experience. But it was written without any intention of publishing or expanding it. It wasn’t until 2010 that I returned to it and over the next three years turned it into a full-length novel. So yes: it was a slow process!

In 2004, I began keeping a regular journal every day, and most of Clocks was taken from these journal entries.

Sun Temple came to me fairly easily and spontaneously once I got into it. At the time I had been taking notes for an intended screenplay, which included research into the spiritual use of cannabis in ancient cultures and religions. Quite a bit of this information seemed to naturally find its way into the pages of Sun Temple.

On the other hand, my current WIP (working title: The King of Atlantis) is swamped under four full notebooks of ideas, outlines, passages, and references. This one is not coming easily! I have way too many ideas and notes!

And I still haven’t found the right voice or tone, even though I am continuing to use some of the techniques that I employed in Sun Temple.

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?

I refer you to my answer to Question 3 above!

Since you put the word “book” in quotes, you have reminded me of a certain trend in my current WIP: the idea of a labyrinth of “books” that are referred to in the narrative: they accumulate, refer to each other, have dialogues with each other, and eventually threaten the sanity of the narrator! My own journals also function as “books” and are starting to assume a greater presence in the story. I have a love-hate relationship with my journals: I frequently denounce them in vigorous fashion! At other times I assign them wistful, melancholic, and beatific qualities. I suspect that the journals are slowly turning into “selves” or versions of myself, and also assuming an increasing gravity and mythic quality.

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

I find them extremely difficult—but I am getting better at them! I have made numerous recordings of each Sun Temple chapter, striving to make my readings more impactful and dramatic. I have also been able to memorize several key chapters. I think that I am lately becoming more effective in my performances. I read at the NYC Poetry Festival on Governor’s Island last summer, and no one threw anything at me.

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?

All of my writings are concerned with exploring the self, from a psychological, emotional, and mystical standpoint. Sun Temple is a book of great extremes: from the dark despair of a NYC tenement to moments of pure transcendence and spiritual ecstasy. The new WIP will be informed by many of R.D. Laing’s theories and insights, as well as mystics from the ancient world.

I am also keenly interested in the relationship between mystical/abnormal psychological states and the perception of objects, cities, and environments. The city is also my subject. The physical spaces that we move through, streets, parks, buildings, they all seem quite mysterious to me.

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?

If I were to compare myself to a single writer, it might be Fernando Pessoa, who wrote from a profound detachment and estrangement that gave his work such an otherworldly quality.

Perhaps a writer ought to be a kind of empath who listens for murmurings from antiquity, who tries to divine invisible patterns and currents, who perceives traces of ancient ritual pass across the countenances of people in the street. Someone who lives outside of time. Or perhaps a writer would do well to craft hard-boiled detective stories and crime fiction! Or paranormal romance!

The gathering trend to express ourselves with emoticons is quite interesting: back to ancient hieroglyphs and symbols! I am not at all opposed to it! It is language, after all.

The fact of our living in the digital age is so overwhelming, complex, and unknowable, that I don’t even attempt to analyze it.

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


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

In order to ward off entropy and writer’s block, one ought to “Write 200 crappy words a day, without fail!” This advice is magical—it’s a psychological trick, really: the pressure is off, because it’s easy! I have used this advice for several months now, and the surprising thing is that in each of these 200-word efforts there exists some good, usable verbiage! The key is to take the pressure off of yourself and just let go.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to poetry to painting to screenplays to music)? What do you see as the appeal?

Nothing is easy for me. I struggled for over 30 years trying to be a painter, only to realize in the end that it wasn’t my “real work”. I am a very late bloomer: I didn’t start writing till I was in my late fifties—I am scrambling to make up for lost time!

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?

My day begins in the coffee shop: I inscribe petty complaints and bitter recollections in a cramped and curmudgeonly script. I rely heavily on highly annoying people, and wretched and inexcusable music to provoke me into spilling my guts onto the page. When I have reached a state of complete resignation, that is when I walk over to the public library, where I sift through my entries and extract a few gems hidden amidst the dross, and type them into a WORD document. I go home for lunch--then return to the library for more of the same.

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

Without fail, I turn to antiquity—Mesopotamia especially! Ancient cultures provide a relief from all of the modern horrors, as well as inspiration.

When I am really stuck and frustrated, I also make use of an online digital “cut-up” machine, which cuts up your text and re-arranges the words, and is derived from William Burrough’s method.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Freshly-cut grass! I will take the liberty of quoting from The Sun Temple:

“A left turn finds me at the Great Lawn where I grow light-headed from an abundance of oxygen and the fragrance of freshly-cut grass. But these aromatic blessings do not arrive free of charge, because they remind me of the Lost Lawns and Gardens* of my late lamented youth.”

[* Please note the example of an implied “book”]

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?

Television: Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, etc.

Movies: The Fabulous Baron Munchausen, 1962,

Deserted streets, empty parks, abnormal weather conditions, and most of all: The Lost City of Manhattan!

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

Fernando Pessoa, Thomas De Quincey, William Burroughs, Celine, Nerval, Lewis Spence, Poe, Dostoyevsky, Bruno Schulz, Gustav Meyrink, Arthur Machen, Ambrose Bierce

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

Get a secondary income stream to augment my Social Security, so that I can afford fresh fruits & vegetables!

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?

The question is moot because I am not suited for anything except day-dreaming, idle gossip, and morbid introspection. In short, I am completely unemployable!

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

Keeping a daily personal journal was a necessary and desperate act of self-preservation.

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

The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Jan Potocki, written at the turn of the 18th and 19th century.

Manuscript Found at Saragossa, 1965, directed by Wojciech Jerzy Has.

20 - What are you currently working on?

A autobiographical novel that chronicles the three years that I lived in the Bennett building in Lower Manhattan, a few blocks from Ground Zero, soon after the attack.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Monday, March 18, 2019

Brian Teare, Doomstead Days

there & I went

on past graves
holding settlers

& Civil War vets

until the pines
seemed to charm

me out of myself

to stop & stand
& think touching

their live hard sides

of Plato’s vision
the human not

an earthly but

a heavenly plant
the soul housed

in the head (“Convince me you have a seed there”)

The sixth full-length poetry title from Philadelphia poet, editor and publisher Brian Teare is the expansive and ambitious Doomstead Days (New York NY: Nightboat Books, 2019), following his earlier poetry titles The Room Where I Was Born (University of Wisconsin Press, 2003), Sight Map (University of California Press, 2009), Pleasure (Ahsahta Press, 2010), Companion Grasses (Richmond CA: Omnidawn, 2013) [see my review of such here] and The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven (Boise ID: Ahsahta Press, 2015) [see my review of such here]. Doomstead Days is constructed in eight extended poem-sections—“Clear Water Renga,” “Headlands Quadrats,” “Toxics Release Inventory,” “Sitting River Meditation,” “Convince me you have a seed there,” “Olivine, Quartz, Granite, Carnelian,” “Sitting Isohydric Mediation” and “Doomstead Days”—the second of which appeared last year as a self-contained chapbook through Brooklyn publisher DoubleCross Press [see my review of such here]. As I wrote at the time, Headlands Quadrats is “a small chapbook of short lyrics furthering his own engagement with eco-poetics, and produced ‘In Memoriam’ for the late San Francisco poet Joanne Kyger (1934-2017).” The afterword to the chapbook, which doesn’t appear in this trade collection, writes:

The quadrat is a unit of measurement used in ecological studies of botanical species. It is a square (made of a durable material) placed over a site to aid in the controlled collection of data. Within the square, species are counted, rain is measured, temperatures are taken, and variations are often tracked over weeks, months, and years. Its inventor, the botanical ecologist Frederic Clements, first advocated for its usage in his 1905 textbook, Research Methods in Ecology, describing it as “merely a square area of varying accurate information.” But as the critic Joshua Schuster notes in his 2015 study The Ecology of Modernism, the quadrat eradicated the values with which Romanticism had laden nature. With the quadrat, “anything could be ecological, and ecological change was an open-ended process without a script that favored morally freighted outcomes.”

Doomstead Days is a book very much engaged in the large canvas, experimenting with short lines and short sections across expansive sequences, collected here as a sequence of poem-sections. Teare’s experiments in rhythm and meaning coincide with how the poems flow across the page, whether poems constructed using left-margined short, accumulating lines, a sequence of two or three line stanzas that flow back and forth across the page, or a sequence of three couplet stanza-squares, one to a page. “[S]ometime the image,” he writes, in the poem “Toxics Release Inventory,” a poem subtitled “(Essay on Man)”: “seems like the first frames of film / before the horror [.]”

One of the more active and engaged eco-poets in the United States that I’m aware of [he had an article on such recently posted via Harriet, the blog], Teare’s Doomstead Days is concerned with precisely what the author—and a number of his books—have been concerned with for some time: the ongoing planet-wide ecological disaster, entirely caused by human activity. Given his prior collection, The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven, explored both the onset of a chronic illness into the work of abstract expressionist painter Agnes Martin (1912-2004), Doomstead Days would seem an extension of his explorations in the book prior to that, his Companion Grasses. As he writes near the opening of “Clear Water Renga”: “I watched white boats go // trailing bright yellow booms, saw / how the real absorbs a fact [.]” Doomstead Days records loss, articulates shifts in ecology and meditates on potential human responses, lack of response and what the shift means, both as loss itself and the encroaching possible termination of human life as we know it. His is a lyric propelled by research, experience and thinking, one line accumulating up against the next. There is something in Teare’s work, also, reminiscent of the work of Vancouver poet Stephen Collis—writing extended, meditative lyrics of accumulated short lines on and around the effects of the Anthropocene—blended with the poem-essay of poets such as Erín Moure, Elisa Gabbert or Phil Hall, utilizing the poem as their best “thinking form.”

each patterned aspect

of habitat lost

first to dams & mills

& industry runoff

& plots of flax

Germantown planted

for paper &cloth

made with water’s power

&; hauled out of

the precipitous gorge

up rough narrow roads

south to the city port

before adelgids

took the crucial dark

from under hemlocks (“Doomstead Days”)

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Kathleen Fraser, m o v e a b le TYYPE

she talks about “frame theory,” the game-bird’s heartbeat under
glass (fluttery to her as a pamphlet or flock of blank ink), wings tied-off.

Song rebuke rescinds the variable. You often measured
pretense between face and thread, when you demonstrated

linen. Corner understood (unsafe on-camera) reading him:
delay’d erasure, giving him 0 or 1. Syllabic temptation (“Orologic”)

Only after she died recently [see my poem for her here] did I realize there was a fairly recent book of hers I had completely missed, Kathleen Fraser's m o v e a b le TYYPE (Calicoon NY: Nightboat Books, 2011), an assemblage of shorter works, including collaborative poems she had produced over the years, responding to and with visual art and artists. A year prior to its publication, Fraser had generously gifted me a copy of her il cuore : the heart, Selected Poems 1970-1995 (Wesleyan University Press, 1997), and I suppose I was so thrilled to be able to start engaging with that volume that I didn’t really look much beyond it. How was I only learning about this book now? What else have I missed? I’m kicking myself, but appreciating that the volume is still available at all, allowing some “new” works of hers to cross my path despite her recent death (although I’ve heard Nightboat has been working on a forthcoming Collected Poems for some time). The volume also includes my original introduction to her and her work, the piece/section “hi  dde  violet  i  dde  violet,” a poem that appeared previously as the first chapbook through Peter and Meredith Quartermain’s Nomados Literary Publishers in 2003.

I’ve been enjoying her lyric and her lyric spaces, including the line added as almost explanation to her piece “L i g a t u r e, for Mr Coltrane,” that reads: “ligature: the structure that in certain type faces joins one letter to the next: in music, a curved line connecting notes to be sung or played as one phrase.” And the poem itself, that includes:

It still felt like winter to me. I had on those cheap wool gloves with leather stitched to the palm side and the coat my father had given me for my trip to the city he’d only dreamed of, along with some of his printed notes on the history of type design, clearly stamped with the certainty that N, Y and C had settled the question of where to begin with an alphabet when you were starting to look for a new type face in the shiny empty field of the metal plate.

There is such a joy and a curiosity to her work, as well as an awareness of the power and placement of individual letters on the page. If I’ve called Lisa Robertson, for example, a poet of sentences, Kathleen Fraser was a poet of the individual letter, allowing each to live on the page, not simply as part of a word, but in sequence, both separate and whole. And through the collaboration, the response, there exist further explorations on those separations, those seeming contradictions, of being both separate, and together. Oh, what we have lost with her death. But there is so much still to learn from what she left with us.