Monday, January 31, 2011

(another) very short story;

After her husband’s death, the new widow brought an antiquarian book dealer into his library, and waved her hand toward shelves. The space was hers to reclaim, and besides, it was the only way for her to move forward. In the end, she told friends, she would keep only a few items, and certainly the children, but little else. She made herself tea, and sat skimming the daily paper. A few hours passed before she returned to the library, and the book dealer presented a handful of cash, some thousands of dollars. Unbeknownst to her, her husband had squirreled away decades of fifties, twenties and even some hundred dollar bills, secretly buried in every book, that only he, now the book dealer, had cracked.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

PLEASE SHARE AND DISTRIBUTE: call for submissions for Poetry for Human Rights at VERSeFest 2011‏

Poetry for Human Rights
at VERSeFest 2011


Poetry for Human Rights will be a showcase incorporating stage and/or page poetry that engages topics of human rights: women's rights, migration rights, democracy and self-determination, social justice, indigenous rights, and/or other topics related to oppression and resistance.

It takes place March 12, 2011 at 3pm, as a part of VERSeFest 2011.


VERSeFest is Ottawa’s new poetry festival, scheduled to take place from Tuesday, March 8 through March 13, 2011.  The festival is being staged by a collective of 14 Ottawa poetry groups that is known as VERSe Ottawa.  The total attendance at these groups’ events varies seasonally between about 750 and 1,000 people per month.  Audiences range in age from school and university students through to the retired. 

The poetic arts in Ottawa and, indeed, the country are rising in popularity and are becoming increasingly mainstream. VERSsFest is a collaborative project to leverage all the energy and capacity of these groups to build a critical mass for the poetry community as a whole, to share audiences, and to deliver a festival on a new scale. Ottawa deserves an annual festival of poetry, and VERSeFest will grow into an annual international poetry festival.


All poets, whether performance-based, page-based, or somewhere in between, are welcome to apply. The showcase is not limited to poets from the Ottawa region, but VERSeFest will not be able to cover any travel.


Please submit a brief statement (500 words maximum) explaining your work and its human rights resonance, along with at least three pieces of sample material.

We can evaluate printed poetry (Word, OpenOffice, or rtf files), performance video (in .mpg or youtube URLs), or audio (in .mp3 or CD audio) to by February 18, 2011.

While electronic submission is much preferred, hard-copy submissions (including printed paper, CDs, DVDs) may be mailed to: PFHR VERSeFest submissions, 243 Booth Street, Ottawa, K1R 7J5.

Deadline is February 18, 2011.

A selection committee will get to work and select three artists for the showcase. Results should be announced by February 26.


One poet will be selected to give a full reading/performance (of 30-35 minutes), and two others will each give a "half" reading/performance (less than 20 minutes). Artists will be compensated at Canada Council rates for readings.

Sorry, we will not be able to cover any travel costs.

Thanks for your submissions!

Friday, January 28, 2011

12 or 20 questions: with Greg Santos

Greg Santos is from Montreal and currently lives between New Haven, Connecticut and Paris, France. He is the author of The Emperor's Sofa (DC Books, 2010). He is the poetry editor of pax americana and is on the editorial staff of the Paris-based journal, Upstairs at Duroc.
Photo credit: © Studio Duda
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, The Emperor’s Sofa, was just released, so I still think it’s too early to tell how its publication has changed my life. That being said, when my publisher, Steve Luxton of DC Books, told me that my book was now “out”, it made me feel like Brock Lesner must have felt when he won his first fight after making the transition from professional wrestling to MMA: legit.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
My first poetry actually started out as songs. I borrowed my father’s guitar and composed song lyrics thinking that Greg Santos originals would impress girls. In the end, I don’t think I impressed too many girls (except, perhaps, my wife!) but the poetry just kept on trucking, even after I put the guitar away. I did try to write fiction but I could never care enough to finish most of my stories and the ones that I did finish never felt quite right. Poetry, though, fits me like a glove.
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?
The beginnings of a poem can jump out of my head and onto the page very quickly, but then I’ll spend enormous amounts of time rewriting a piece. I tend to have “false starts” where the first few lines set the tone for the poem but are then ultimately removed. More often than not, my final poems are completely different from my first drafts.
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?
The majority of the poems in The Emperor’s Sofa were written as standalone pieces, except for the poems that make up the third section of the book, Travels Around the Empire. I wrote the poem of the same name and I liked its otherworldly tone so much that I set about writing more poems that could go together and function as a body of work.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I don’t write my poems specifically to be performed in front of an audience but I do love reading out loud. It gives me a buzz when I can see and hear people reacting to a piece.
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 don’t think theory, I just write.
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?
For me, writing poetry is a vocation, a calling. It’s something I’m compelled to do. Gertrude Stein once said, “I write for myself and strangers.” I write for myself because I have to, but if someone reading my work is moved by my writing, then that’s a lovely bonus. I don’t think a writer should have to do anything but write – although sometimes you have to brush your teeth.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I was lucky to have Jason Camlot, whom I respect and admire very much, as my editor for The Emperor’s Sofa. I also show everything I write with my wife and she is a really thoughtful reader and editor. I think it’s important to have someone you trust give you honest feedback before your work is released to the masses.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Before you write, read, read, read.
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 jot down notes in my Moleskin throughout the day but I get the most done on my laptop at night. I do the majority of my writing after my wife and infant daughter are asleep, otherwise I feel antisocial.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I spend time with my wife. I play with my daughter. I go for a walk. I tutor Frenchmen. I watch reruns of The Simpsons. I surf the interweb. I check out what’s new on Facebook. I Google my own name. I go back and fiddle with unfinished poems. I read the professional wrestling dirt sheets. I pray to the poetry gods to be able to complete another poem.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I live a nomadic lifestyle, so the idea of home is constantly in flux but since the birth of my daughter, home is the sweet smell of her hair, hand sanitizer, and laundered sleepers hanging to dry.
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?
I love going to museums. When I was in grad school in Manhattan I regularly visited the fifth floor of the MoMA to see the Van Goghs, the Picassos, and their cool Surrealist collection, but especially Henri Rousseau’s paintings, The Dream and The Sleeping Gypsy. I could spend hours looking at Rousseau’s work. I’d like to think that if my poems could visually come to life, they’d be inhabited by characters from the worlds he created.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Non-poetic works that were really important to me during the writing of The Emperor’s Sofa were Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald, and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Get married? Check. Have a kid? Check. Write a book? Check. Live in New York and Paris? Double check. I think I’m doing pretty well so far, actually! I don’t know. Get a full-time teaching gig. Write a second book. Get my driver’s license.
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 would have been an actor or a cartoonist. Luckily I gave up those pipe dreams for the glitz and glamour of a life poetic.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I was very artistic growing up. I drew a lot, painted, played piano and guitar, sang, was into theatre in high-school and college; I wrote screenplays, short stories, and poetry. I knew I would ultimately have a career in the arts. At one point, though, I realized that I could be in danger of being okay at many things but not great at anything specific. That thought terrified me. While I loved acting, I enjoyed the creative freedom of writing my own stuff even more. After I took my first poetry workshop at Concordia University with a real live poet (David McGimpsey was my professor), I just knew that I wanted to buckle down and focus on learning everything I could about poetry. I owe McGimpsey a huge debt of gratitude – and also a lot of beers.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Mammoth (DC Books, 2010) by Larissa Andrusyshyn and Ghost Machine (Caketrain, 2010) by Ben Mirov are very moving accounts of loss, the former dealing with the loss of a parent and the latter with the end of a relationship. Toy Story 3 was brilliant. That lazy-eyed baby: creepy!
 19- What are you currently working on?
My wife is on a research fellowship for her PhD in Paris for almost a year and while we’re here, I’ve given myself the task of writing a poem a day. I’m hoping I’ll be able to use these for a second book. You can read some of them on my blog: Moondoggy’s Pad (

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

the seventh issue of ottawater is now on-line!

The seventh issue features new writing by residents former and current, including Cameron Anstee, Michael Blouin, Jamie Bradley, Stephen Brockwell, Ronnie R. Brown, Faizal Deen, Monique Desnoyers, Rhonda Douglas, Amanda Earl, Laura Farina, Jesse Ferguson, Mark Frutkin, Katia Grubisic, Elisabeth Harvor, William Hawkins, a.m. kozak, Ben Ladouceur, Naomi K. Lewis, rob mclennan, Alcofribas Nasier II, Peter Norman, Roland Prevost, Monty Reid, Michael Eden Reynolds, Shane Rhodes and Chuqiao Yang, as well as interviews with Ben Ladouceur, John Lavery, Marcus McCann, Pearl Pirie and Sandra Ridley, and artwork by Danny Hussey, Dan Martelock, Hayden Menzies, IAMRURIK, Marc Adornato, Don Smith, Jeremy Reid, Rebecca Leach, Remi Thériault, Ryan King and Stefan Thompson.

ottawater would like to thank designer Tanya Sprowl, the ottawa international writers festival, and Randy Woods at non-linear creations for their continuing support.

Founded to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the City of Ottawa, Canada's glorious capital city, "ottawater," and its chemical formula/logo "O2(H2O)," is a poetry annual produced exclusively on-line, in both readable and printable pdf formats, and found at ( An anthology focusing on Ottawa poets and poetics, its first issue appeared in January 2005, 150 years after old Bytown became the City of Ottawa.

Watch for the launch this Friday night at the Carleton Tavern!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

the red notebooks; a new e-chapbook by rob mclennan

now available: red notebooks; a new e-chapbook by rob mclennan
produced by The Red Ceilings Press, England;
part of a larger manuscript, "Miss Canada"

Monday, January 24, 2011

jwcurry's Messagio Galore Take VII; event report,

MESSAGIO GALORE is an organically thetic examination of the possibilities inherent in the wide range of activities that occur between literature & music (with interpenetrations of each) commonly called “sound poetry”. it approaches the genre as inclusive (encompassing, for instances, chant, optophonetic texts, multilinear narrative, choral works, group improvisation, organized sound effects, concrete & visual poetry, letterpuzzles...) & investigates issues of writing/composing, scoring, transcription, reading, rehearsal, group dynamics, audiencing & &. (jwcurry, from the program introduction)
On Sunday, January 23, 2011, jwcurry produced the seventh in his series of “Messagio Galore” performances, again at the Ottawa City Hall Art Gallery, promoted as “an evening of sound poetry (& similar) focussing on extended works & miniatures featuring the voices of jwcurry, Lesley Marshall, Christine McNair, Alastair Larwill, Grant Wilkins, reading work by Antonin Artaud, Robert Ashley, bob cobbing, jwcurry, don sylvester houéard, Ernst Jandl, Alastair Larwill, Sam Loyd, Franz Mon, bpNichol, Michèle Provost, Rob Read, Tomahawk, Richard Truhlar, Frank Zappa.” For a number of years now, jwcurry has been developing a series of multi-vocal pieces and performances, with multi-voice sound works composed and/or performed with Gary Barwin, Max Middle, Jennifer Books, Rob Read, Maria Erskine, Stuart Ross and Richard Truhlar. More recently, he's been working more specifically on works/performances favouring larger groups, of four, five and six, as opposed to duos and trios. For this, his seventh version of “Messagio,” the group has been rehearsing together for nearly a year, starting regular practices back in April, 2010 (with Lesley Marshall replacing Montreal-bound Sheena Mordasiewicz in November), and even performing with Rob Read and Gustave Morin in Poplar Hill, Ontario during the August long weekend, and again, for Sandra Ridley's Carleton University poetry workshop in November. As curry writes in the program about the series of “Messagios”:
MESSAGIO GALORE got its kickstart in 2004 as a lecture with sound examples, serving (unintendedly) as a good example of how not to about doing this & suggesting the advisability of a constantly-revised series of takes. given that sound poetry is a physical presence occurring in realtime often using more than a single voice, it has proven instructive to engage a shifting complement of readers to play with in varying degrees of immersion in rehearsal. the transmission of sound to page to sound again is a tricky biznis at best & it can almost be said that there are as many methods of scoring & reading sound texts as there are texts.

take VII takes an audio look at several extended works bridged with miniatures, mostly using different methods of scoring & articulation.
The previous incarnation, “Messagio Galore Take VI,” took place two full years earlier, January 24, 2009, as part of Max Middle's A B Series [see my report on such here], with a two hour performance by jwcurry, Roland Prévost, Carmel Purkis, John Lavery, Sandra Ridley and Grant Wilkins (with the vocal addition of Toronto writer Maria Erskine near the very end) performing orchestrated vocal works for two, three, four, five and six voices. Theirs was an intense sequence of multi-hour, marathon practice sessions over a few months, resulting in a performance of material that focused on large and smaller groups of performers, working duos, trios, quartets and the group as a whole. What was different about this new incarnation was realizing how the entire program of pieces were orchestrated for the entire group, with only two of the seventeen pieces performed were duets, and the remainder adapted for four or five voices. As the previous incarnation had performances designed to highlight the individual strengths and personalities of the performers, the pieces in “Take VII” were performed as blended voices that weaved in and out of each other, deliberately in and out of harmonies, and even to the point that it became difficult to distinguish what sounds were coming out of what performer (another deliberate play, as performers often shifted vocal roles mid-stream).

Taking up a corner of the Ottawa City Hall Art Gallery space, even the placement of the performers shifted from piece to piece, either to alternate sides of each other, or even with performers standing behind one another. If the previous “Messagio” brought a series of individual performers out of themselves, this current incarnation blended the combined strengths of a series of individual performers into a single vocal space, and the closing piece, “She Was A Visitor” (one performed at “Messagio Galore Take VI” as well) brought in the additional voices of Sandra Ridley, Sheena Mordasiewicz, Carmel Purkis and Roland Prevost, with Larwill and curry at either end, providing book-ending sounds to the varying discordant sounds and harmonies throughout the centre. And the program, wonderfully articulate in its notations on individual performed pieces, provided information without necessarily providing direction, knowing full well that no two performances of any piece could be ever the same, and deliberately so.
Artikulationen, Franz Mon (Germany, 198-?); source: riverrun voicings soundscapes, ed. Klaus Schöning (Mainz, Germany, Wergo, 1999), transcribed, scored & arranged by curry (2008) from a quartet recording made at the Studio Akustische Kunst in 1990. Mon's “environment of syllables and sounds searching for words” (Schöning/trans. Steven Lindberg, CD note) began in the 1960s & includes a series of homages to sound artists, this one for Velemir Khlebnikov.
readers: curry, Larwill, Marshall, McNair
What becomes fascinating is also in how jwcurry, over the past near-decade, has been developing quite a group of sound performers in Ottawa. curry has been talking informally for a few years about organizing an orchestra of voices for sound poetry, and this performance, far more musical in scope and tighter as a performing unit (in places) than previous “Messagios,” certainly brought those elements out, brilliantly.

And for those who might have missed it, yes, the entire performance was filmed with multiple cameras, thanks to Gio Sampogna and Ben Walker.

Thursday, January 20, 2011


Following the postmodern conference held in May, 2008 [see my note on the conference itself here] at the University of Ottawa, finally comes RE: READING THE POSTMODERNISM: Canadian Literature and Criticism after Modernism, ed. Robert David Stacey (Ottawa ON: University of Ottawa Press, 2010), a collection of some of the pieces presented, including pieces by Robert Kroetsch, Frank Davey, Linda Hutcheson, Christian Bök, Stephen Cain, Alexander MacLeod, Gregory Betts, Herb Wylie, Jennifer Blair, Jason Wiens, Pauline Butling and Susan Rudy. As editor Stacey writes in the introduction:
When I first encountered the term as an undergraduate at McGill University in the late 1980s, talk of postmodernism was everywhere. For me at that time the postmodern seemed virtually the property of Linda Hutcheon, whose books—The Poetics of Postmodernism (1988), The Politics of Postmodernism (1989), and The Canadian Postmodern (1988)—I eagerly took up as indispensable supplements to my course readings. It was through Hutcheon’s texts that I and many of my peers were first exposed to theorists such as Roland Barthes, Jean-François Lyotard, Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard, and Jacques Derrida, whose writings, different and sometimes incompatible as they are, nevertheless characterize the so-called linguistic turn in the humanities with which the postmodern, as aesthetic, is broadly aligned. These thinkers and their associated literary and philosophical concepts are among the most cited in the present collection as well. That this is so suggests that their ideas remain relevant to an understanding of the postmodern, even when the effort has been made, as it has here, to broaden and complicate that understanding beyond the dominant Canadian view.
At nearly four hundred pages, I can understand why not every piece gets invited to participate in the post-conference collection, but I have to admit to being disappointed to not be able to further engage with a piece by Toronto poet and critic Andy Weaver. Still, the collection furnishes rare essays on selected works by Lynn Crosbie and the late Daniel Jones in Stephen Cain’s “Feeling Ugly: Daniel Jones, Lynn Crosbie, and Canadian Postmodernism’s Second Wave,” and bill bissett, the late bpNichol, Steve McCaffery and Judith Copithorne in St. Catharine’s, Ontario poet and critic Gregory Betts’ “Postmodern Decadence in Canadian Sound and Visual Poetry,” two essays which, by themselves, notwithstanding a single other piece, are more than worth the entire collection. As Betts writes:
In fact, as Johanna Drucker points out, Canadian sound and visual poetry was distinct from other concurrent manifestations precisely because of its self-conscious use of theoretical and philosophical implications within its radical aesthetics (128-129). Experimental poets such as Nichol, McCaffery, Judith Copithorne, and bissett, and sound poetry groups like The Four Horsemen, Owen Sound, and Re: Sounding, used their creative work as the embodiment and manifestation of radical manifestos for emerging postmodern tropes like deconstruction and poststructuralism. Their art, as Habermas predicted, was indeed a decadent explosion of the barbaric yawp, the wild grunt, and primitive howl—proprioceptive intensities amplified by an anarchistic transhistoricism. As Nichol wrote, “i break letters for you like bread […] this is the divine experience. that i have found my words useless to reach you” (Gifts n.p.). Though language is said to fail in this passage, its sacrifice is a devotional offering to Nichol’s invented neologistic gods. As such, it releases an unexpressed, elusive spiritual fulfillment: an imaginary order emerging through disorder. Postmodernism in Canada begins with this kind of pale utopian fire, with this kind of playful, self-conscious irony. The spirit of decadere, of falling away from established norms of language-use without falling toward anything—a systematic derangement of the senses—represents an embrace of the end of order, the end of stability. In lines such as these, Nichol remains optimistic about the experience of instability, of being beyond or outside of language and the language game.
This collection also reminds me that I’ve seen a number of interesting and compelling critical pieces by Toronto writer and critic Stephen Cain that seem both academic and incredibly readable, exploring corners that so often otherwise would have gone unnoticed, including a magnificent piece on the Toronto geographies of bpNichol’s The Martyrology Book V (1982). I wonder, might Cain compile his essays into a collection at some point? Cain’s piece in the conference, and thus in this anthology, focus on Lynn Crosbie’s incredible novel Paul’s Case (1997) and Daniel Jones’ Obsessions (1992), writing of “These two novels, written by two friends living mere blocks from each other on College Street in downtown Toronto at the time, both illustrate the formal style and ideology of this new postmodernism, as well as share a similar affective expression (primarily that of paranoia and irritation) and, throughout, articulate a lack of social and political agency.” An explanation of much of the nihilism Cain talks about from this period could so easily be summed up in a quote he brings in by R.M. Vaughan, from an interview with him published in the anthology The Notebooks: Interviews and New Fiction from Contemporary Writers (eds. Michelle Berry and Natalee Caple, Toronto ON: Anchor, 2002):
When [Michael Ondaatje] got the Governor General’s Award for Anil’s Ghost he made a speech about how important it was for him in the 1970s to get the Governor General’s Award for Billy the Kid. He said that getting that award when he was in his twenties gave him validation, gave him access to a bigger audience, and gave him all that stuff that we all need at certain periods in our career. And I thought, well, good for you for putting this in context and giving people a sense of the importance of these sorts of things.

Then my second thought was, all the people I know who are currently writing the equivalent of the experimental book that you wrote in the seventies will never never never get near the Governor General’s Awards, or the Gillers, or the Griffin. It’s like that generation, with a few exceptions, got in and then slammed the gates shut. Of course, that’s the history of the boomers in all fields, that’s their economic survival strategy.
Still, why do we care about postmodernism? It’s already over, I’ve heard some suggest: why bother? But I’m far more interested in Stacey’s mention in his introduction that offers the same idea, footnoting that “A notable exception is Christian Bök who forcefully argues in “Getting Ready to have been Postmodern” that, at least in terms of literary criticism, genuine postmodernism has yet to begin in earnest here, having been aggressively suppressed within the dominant critical discourse of Canadian literature.” This, in my mind, is a far more compelling direction to move further of our writing and criticism in. Targeting Hutcheon, specifically her book The Canadian Postmodern, in a scathing defense of the postmodern, Bök writes in his essay:
While Hutcheon might argue that postmodern literature is “ex-centric,” insofar as it occupies a marginal position at the periphery of our culture, she nevertheless exacerbates the marginality of such literature by failing to discuss anti-classic, anti-mimetic fiction on the grounds that it has only a minor status among the major voices in Canada—and consequently, she forfeits the appropriate opportunity to study the work of avant-garde writers who have gone largely ignored in canonical narratives about our literary heritage. Even though a handful of critics have balked at these rhetorical manoeuvres, her book has nevertheless sanctioned exuberance among far too many scholars who now have permission to read, as postmodern, any realistic narrative that demonstrates even the merest degree of narrative aberrancy. Such scholars have adopted the catchy jargon of the “pomo,” but they have continued to evade any sustained encounter with the most obdurate examples of postmodern innovation, thereby ignoring the rare cases of a more experimental genre in order to depict as progressive the many cases of a more conservative genre.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

George Bowering, Horizontal Surfaces


When I was a bumptious (creative) writing student and part way through the year, I suddenly got a great mark on an assignment, after a line of so-so okay grades. My (creative) writing professor wrote on my last page that I had at last found my voice. It was a story that included in its cast of characters, or its images, a one-legged seagull at Stanley Park, and I was pretty pleased with it at the same time myself, slow learner as I was. I never published this story, though I did get around to publishing some of my “creative” writing assignments, even a play that got anthologized and produced on stage and television. For a few years early in my “career,” I taught “creative” writing part time, but I never said anything about young writers finding their voices. I have heard, though, that that’s what they say in “creative” writing classes. Does this mean that you lose your voice, maybe because of your education, and then you go looking for it? Or does it mean that your voice is hiding from you, or waiting for you out there, like Mr. Right, and you have to try a lot of voices until you get the one that is meant for you. Voice, you see, is an easy thing to mention, and a hard thing to define or describe. It is something you just “hear” and “know.” People who never heard Donald Barthelme talk will tell you that they recognize his voice when they read it. I don’t know – when youngsters ask my advice, or seem to, I tell them to shut up about their voice, and open their ears, find out whether the language they are hearing at the moment has anything to say to them.
Vancouver writer George Bowering’s collection of short essays on writing, Horizontal Surfaces (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2010), can be considered alongside previous of his prose-explorations, short essays on writing and writers, collected alphabetically in small collections, including Craft Slices(Ottawa ON: Oberon Press, 1985) and Errata (Red Deer AB: Red Deer College Press, 1988), both worthy, compelling and highly entertaining works a number of current readers would love to get their hands on, if they only knew (apparently a scheme to reissue these works has been in the works for some time). Horizontal Surfaces, much like many of his other works of poetry, fiction, history and literary criticism, contains references to jazz, William Carlos Williams, poetry, Robert Kroetsch, Montreal, Laurence, baseball and Vancouver, and perhaps even a passing reference to that old newsletter, Tish, but there’s always some new element he manages to bring in, some new lesson to impart, if you’re paying attention. These pieces are much too sly to give anything away too easily. For years, George Bowering has been writing these short books on composition and perhaps more readers and writers aught to be engaging with them; why aren’t his writings on writing better known, wider read? Just as worthy as anything else by any of the “famous” writers that other countries seem to produce, the writers and thinkers from outside these geographic lines.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

12 or 20 (second series) questions: with Sarah Rosenthal

Sarah Rosenthal is the editor of A Community Writing Itself: Conversations with Vanguard Writers of the Bay Area (Dalkey Archive) and author of Manhatten (Spuyten Duyvil), How I Wrote This Story (Margin to Margin), sitings (a+bend), not-chicago (Melodeon Poetry Systems), and The Animal (Dusie, forthcoming 2011). Her poetry has appeared in numerous journals including ecopoetics, Bird Dog, textsound, and Fence, and is anthologized in Bay Poetics (Faux), The Other Side of the Postcard (City Lights), hinge (Crack), and Kindergarde: Avant-garde Poems, Plays, and Stories for Children (a Small Press Traffic project, forthcoming 2011). Her essays and interviews have appeared in journals such as Jacket, Denver Quarterly, Rain Taxi, Otoliths, and New American Writing. She is the recipient of the Leo Litwak Fiction Award and grant-supported writing residencies at Vermont Studio Center, Soul Mountain, and Ragdale. An Affiliate Artist at Headlands Center for the Arts, she has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University and Santa Clara University as well as privately, and writes curricula for the Developmental Studies Center.

1. How did your first book change your life?

I’ve written three chapbooks, but seeing my first perfect-bound book enter the world felt like a rite of passage into the solidity of a “real book,” lined up on the shelf with all the other books. The physicality of it was undeniable. At the same time it felt anticlimactic. I’d already seen all the elements so much at that point—the text, the cover, the layout—that in a way it felt like the next step in a long process, not the earth-shaking event I’d imagined. Still, there is a shift if not a quake. I’ve had conversations with strangers who’ve said “I read your book and it affected me.” I don’t recall this happening to the same extent with chapbooks or with poems in magazines, so I have the sense that my work is reaching people in a different way.

How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

Not-chicago and sitings are most easily classifiable as poetry and How I Wrote This Story as fiction, but each includes elements of both genres. Manhatten continues the cross-genre impulse, combining prose-poem-like fiction, lineated poems, dream matter, and reviews (e.g. Rachel Amadeo’s film What About Me and Yoko Ono’s retrospective at SFMOMA). My second perfect-bound book is totally different from my earlier books: it’s a collection of interviews with a straight-up nonfiction introduction.

2. How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or nonfiction?

I came to fiction first, then nonfiction, and lastly poetry. In 4th grade I wrote what my mom and I agree is a masterpiece: Dreamer and Practical, a modern-day, novel-length version of “The Tortoise and the Hare.” My next high point (8th grade) was a critical work on Charlotte Brontë (including such memorable sentences as “The black raven of tuberculosis was to claim Charlotte’s life”). As a teen I submitted two poems anonymously to the high school newspaper and the faculty editor praised them—that made a big impact on me. My angst-ridden adolescence started receding in the latter half of my 20s when I was teaching toddlers. Their joy was infectious. For some reason the infection attached to poetry, the reading and writing and sharing of it, and has been relatively virulent ever since.

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 assembled all my chapbooks out of work already written over months or years, so I wasn’t working toward a project in those cases; I was just accruing work along the way. By contrast, coming up with a book-length concept that has the just the right combination of focus and porousness has been more of a challenge for me. It took me two years to land on the basic premise of Manhatten, and about the same amount of time to come up with the idea for my current work-in-progress.

My first drafts are often fairly close to where they’ll end up, but I think that happens because I practice my scales regularly, in the form of journaling and poetry-writing. If I do enough of this background writing, then when I’m ready to write what I think of as a “real” poem, it’s more likely to arrive in a close-to-final form.

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?

Somewhere along the line I got enamored of the notion of conceiving a book-length project and then carrying it out, partly because I saw that once I had such a project in place, it was a sturdy vessel I could travel in for a while. So for the past several years I’ve either been working on a book or thinking about what the next book might be, even though in the process I’ve written and published many shorter pieces.

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, which goes back to my theater days, and also connects to my love of teaching writing and literature, where you’re helping a roomful of people connect to and through art. My writing is generally pretty solitary, and it’s a process in which I’m not at all shooting for facile communication—so seeing an audience connect to it in whatever way they can is confirming. I get nervous before readings, but by and large I’ve learned how to transform my nervousness into energy that fuels the occasion.

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 current work takes up the notion of “the animal,” including such investigations as our relationship to our own animal nature (a way of approaching the mind-body “problem”), and our ways of being close to and distant from other species (we domesticate, legislate, exterminate them), all of this happening in the context of radical, human-triggered phenomena such as global warming and a rapidly changing technological landscape. In my work, this theme of the animal braids itself in unruly ways with feminist politics and a constant interest in the artistic process, poetry, and language.

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 think each writer has to determine this for him/herself. Speaking for myself, I want to constantly transgress rules—whether imposed by the old guard, the avant-garde, or the last thing I wrote—about what a woman or a work of art can be and do, and thereby invite readers to interrogate the rules they live by, in the process gaining more access to their own original thinking.

This transgression happens in my writing in part through (mostly female) voices and figures who tend to be rule breakers: they’re messy, anal, wrong, smart, suspicious, sexy, uptight, tender. These voices and figures give the work an embodied quality and remind us that we are sensate, mortal beings. And because they are so vulnerable and flawed, they invite readers to question the ways that we judge each other and ourselves.

At the same time I share with many contemporary poets the sense that the self as we ordinarily define it is too limited to be an adequate container for literature, and the story is filled with fractures. In fact, I’m a poet precisely because poetry embraces the fissures, the falling-through-the-fissures, the lifting-off, the incommensurable or inexplicable. So my work welcomes otherness, unreason, and what feels like error; I incorporate dreams’ wayward logic and at times privilege language’s musical qualities over conventional sense-making; and I make identity slippery—the voices and figures appear and disappear, replace each other, change characteristics. These approaches help me create a zone of permission where I feel most at home and which I hope enlarges a reader’s sense of what’s allowed, what’s possible.

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

If we define “outside editors” as book and magazine publishers whom I’ve never met: so far, I’ve found that if I’ve taken the trouble to listen to trusted colleagues’ feedback on my work, generally by the time I send the work to outside editors, the work is ready to be published.

I have a network of writer friends who read each other’s work critically, and I find this essential to the process of moving a piece of writing out into the world. I’ve been in writing groups for many years and find them extremely useful for getting a sense of what is or isn’t coming across to the reader, as well as for providing the discipline of deadlines.

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

A grad school professor encouraged me to be fearless about taking up space as an artist. I think she wanted me to take more risks. Her comment made me realize the importance of pinpointing the moment at which decorum stops being a way to make the world a nicer place to live and becomes instead a form of self-erasure. Her words were a radical and important message given the cultural training I’d received to minimize my (female) presence.

10. How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?

When I wrote Manhatten, it was a joy to write in multiple genres simultaneously—the genres influenced and enriched each other, with poetry (its craft, procedures, and permissions) as the dominant force. My poetic mind is my most liberated mind, so that was a good thing. In the past couple of years, the lines have been more distinct, as I finished up a book of interviews and started a manuscript of lineated poetry. I’ve also been incredibly short on time, which has necessitated hunkering down with one project or the other, according to whatever deadline I was facing. But I think they’re still influencing each other productively. Having opportunities to think/read/write critically brings sharper thinking into my creative work, and spending time in the creative zone helps me bring more depth and fluidity to my critical work.

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 try to write when my mind is freshest, which usually means first thing in the morning and during the night. In the later day or evening, I read things that support my current writing project.

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

Sometimes I need to engage with a different medium altogether—attend a dance performance, listen to music, see visual art. Doing art myself in another medium, however badly, inevitably renews my writing practice. Lately I’ve been reading other poets’ essays on poetics. This kind of reading can remind me of the larger enterprise of the poet-in-the-world in a way that’s energizing. Taking a walk or going to a museum are also great. One of my favorite places right now is the Randall Museum, which takes in local wild animals who have been wounded, as well as exotic pets whose owners don’t want to keep them any more. I love to go there with little kids.

13. What do you really want?

For my art, I want more uninterrupted time for reflection and art-making. For the world—where do I start? I want everyone to use nonviolent communication. I want universal acknowledgement of global warming with coordinated efforts to address it. But then my next thought is, I have plenty of work to do to clean up my own act in these arenas, before I demand that the world outside me change.

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?

Natural science plays a huge role in my current manuscript. Music and visual art are always important. I’ve been exploiting coffee table books and used art magazines lately. They’re not the same as a museum but they’re good for sitting at the kitchen table taking a break from print. The first thing I’d do with more time and money is go to more live performances (dance, theater, music) and resume studies in those forms.

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

A random handful of faves over the last several years would include Eva Sjödin’s Inner China, Carmen Martín Gaite’s The Back Room, M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!, Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, Lydia Davis’ The End of the Story, multiple texts by Thomas Bernhard, Paul Celan, Edmund Jabès, Kathy Acker, and Eileen Myles, and works by the authors in A Community Writing Itself. The work and friendship of poets Jennifer Firestone, Dana Teen Lomax, Erin Wilson, Kristin Palm, Elise Ficarra, Lauren Schiffman, and many others provides sustenance and inspiration.

16. What would you like to do that you haven’t yet done?

My fantasies include living part-time in New York, achieving some measure of fluency in either Spanish or French, and writing another cross-genre book.

17. If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternatively, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

Often I see performance art as the ultimate art form—it seems to leave the least out; it’s like a distilled version of being fully alive. I’ve done pieces combining narrative, movement, sound, and images, both solo and as part the performance trio diSh with Dana Teen Lomax and Rose Najia. At some point I hunkered down with writing, because I decided that you need to commit to a form to make any headway. And I do think that every art form includes all other art forms. But I’m still enamored of the embodied purposefulness, the focused yet fluid engagement with the moment, that I’ve experienced in performing.

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

Sometimes I tell myself a story about how I just barely escaped being an anorexic clerk living near my parents, attending a monthly book club that reads bestsellers. Sometimes I convince myself that with all my interests and talents it was a hard choice between the flute, visual art, theater, and writing (sometimes I add dance to the list but that’s a little harder to spin). Sometimes I say my whole life from my earliest days pointed inevitably to my being a writer. Data to include in the latter story: My mother read to us religiously—The Real Mother Goose, A Child’s Garden of Verses; my mother’s idea of a good time is poring over a passage from Finnegan’s Wake; my grandmother coped with chronic pain in her last days by reciting Keats’ “Endymion”; my grandmother taught Latin and Greek; my mother taught French; my paternal grandmother, a German Jewish émigré who lived down the block from us, was a daily fixture, speaking German to my father and thickly accented English to the rest of us. All this, combined with the ego-boosting praise I received in school for nascent literary efforts—how could I not have ended up focusing on literature and language?

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

Beckett’s collected short prose; In the Realms of the Unreal (a documentary about the artist Henry Darger).

20. What are you currently working on?

I’m working on a poetry book that engages the question of the animal, along with feminism and the making of art.