Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Six Questions with Vancy Kasper: 2014 Raymond Souster Award Shortlist

From early April to early June, I’m featuring short interviews with the authors of the six shortlisted titles for each of the three awards run through The League of Canadian Poets – the Raymond Souster Award, the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and the Pat Lowther Award. Today’s feature is Toronto journalist, young adult writer and poet Vancy Kasper, whose book Rebel Women (Toronto ON: Inanna Publications, 2013) is on the shortlist for the 2014 Raymond Souster Award. See my previous Raymond Souster Award shortlist interviews with Anne Compton and Jenna Butler. The winners to all three awards will be announced on Saturday, June 7, 2014 at The League of Canadian Poets 2014 Annual General Meeting in Toronto.

Poet, novelist and journalist, Vancy Kasper was born and grew up in Toronto. She received her B.A. from the University of Toronto and joined the Toronto Star as reporter, feature writer and columnist. Her articles appeared in magazines from Japan to Germany. An early member of the Women’s Writing Collective, she is the author of a poetry collection, Mother I’m So Glad You Taught Me How to Dance and award-winning Young Adult Fiction, Always Ask for A Transfer, Street of Three Directions and Escape to Freedom. Her poems have been published in Fireweed, Canadian Woman Studies/les cahiers de la femme, Quarry, Poetry Toronto, Waves, and Landscape and broadcast on Canadian televison and radio. She has been a feminist for over 30 years.

1. Rebel Women is your second trade collection of poetry, after Mother I’m So Glad You Taught Me How To Dance (Toronto ON: Williams-Wallace, 1986). After two trade books over the space of three decades, how do you feel your concerns as a writer have developed? How do you feel the work, and even the process of writing, has evolved?
My concerns as a writer have deepened. I'm now writing poetry books with a central theme (two more here half done) as opposed to collecting enough individual poems to meet Canada Council requirements to submit as a book, as I did for Mother. I find I'm more concerned with the why of people and events, than the what.

The process of writing for me is slow and frustrating. I ned toknow  more andmore about words, their roots and how far I can go in using them and still say what I'm trying to say. Scribbled words in margins of mags and papers and lines using them are all oveer floors of my office and bedroom. A lot of my research is here and there on the backs of envalopes, anything handy to write on,all eventually stuffed into transparent freezer bags, so I won't lose them. I'd also like to get more humour into my work. Laughter is so much more important than crying.

I nearly died of cancer in January, 1980. Not nearly as much was known about the disease and the sophistocated machinery for diagnosis/treatment was not in place.(I was a single parent at the time). I finally checked myself out of the hospital and found I had to husband my energy very, very carefully. I have managed successfully. Many people cope with situations that interfere. My work evolves around this.

It's true Rebel Women is my second poetry book, but I've actually written five trade books. My first Y.A. novel sold over 250,000 copies. My fourth Y.A. trade book Escape to Freedom was awarded First Honourable Mention by the Canadian Library Association. All of  them were short-listed for the now defunct Max and Greta Ebel Award. This resulted in my being able to work as poet in residence in schools and libraries. I'm very grateful to poet Sonja Dunn, who smoothed the way so I would be hired to work for different school boards. Of course I'd done poetry Readings prior to this in galleries, restaurants, libraries, bars etc.

2. Who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
To re-energize my work I return to Phyllis Webb, Leonard Cohen, Karen Connelly, Patrick Lane, George Bowering, Don McKay, Katerina Fretwell, Renee Norman, Bob Dylan, Alison Pick, Tess Gallagher, Susan Griffin, Michael Ondaatje.I grew up listening to my grandmother, aunt and father quote whole passages from Shakespeare's plays and sonnets, over the dinner table, so I occasionally go back to him.

I can't help but return to E. Alex Pierce, Barry Dempster, bp nichol, Tennessee Williams, Audrey Lorde, Flannery O'Connor, and Barbara Kingsolver.
3. You’ve lived in Toronto for quite some time, and I’m curious as to how the community of writers around you, as well as the landscape of Toronto, have contributed to your work. Do you think you might have been a different kind of writer had you lived in another part of the country?

I was born and brought up in Toronto. As a child, through adolescence and into adulthood, I was taken (being baby-sat) or invited to parties given by members of the small artistic community in Toronto. My aunt, Claire Gordon McMaster, a concert pianist, was close friends with sculptors Wyle and Loring, actress Jane Mallett, and artists Dorothy Stevens (deBruno-Austin) and Fred Varley. I was immersed in the importance of the arts, knew the pitfalls and poverty of writing.

After I left the Star, Globe and Mail reporter Jocelyn Fulford told me about a group being formed for women writers only. I feel the founding of the Women's Writing Collective with it's various poetry and fiction groups by Betsy Warland, Charlene Sheard and Gay Allison (founding editor of Fireweed) opened wide the doors to publication for women poets and writers.

Their efforts, determination and originality, especially with that of Ayanna Black who joined a short while later, saw that women poets voices were heard equally alongside men's at unique events: (Harper's posh restaurant; Jelly and Jam, in an empty factory; Nervous Breakdown coffee house; Underground Railroad restaurant; and especially new elegant art galleries. Prior to this, even today, most poetry readings take place in noisy (but welcoming) pubs, upstairs as a secondary event. Gay Allison in particular succeeded in moving poetry Readings into a more elegant environment other than libraries. I believe Landscape (Coach House) which the Women's Writing Collective published was the first multicultural collection of women's poetry published in Canada. I belonged to a poetry group and a children's fiction group, until members eventually moved on. I meet today with a differnt writing group and find the support and encouragement woman to woman, invaluable.

It's interesting to think I might have been a different kind of writer had I lived in another part of the country. I don't know. My father was born and brought up in Nanaimo, B.C. I'm named after the city of Vancouver--my uncle's signature was Vancouver Camden Gordon (Van C. Gordon)  I was supposed to be a boy, named after him.

I love Island life. I lived on the Toronto Island nine months of every year for thirteen years. One of my children was born there. If I'd lived on Vancouver Island would my work have been different? I appreciate the Prairies--no one could crowd me there. I could always smell  the ocean if I moved to Halifax where one son lives. Maybe my work might have been different. I  don't spend a lot of time musing about what might have been.

4. Rebel Women explores the women – specifically your grandmother and great-grandmother – who were part of the 1837 Rebellion, and your author biography specifically mentions that it was in your great-grandfather Joseph Shepard’s parlour where William Lyon Mackenzie planned his 1837 Rebellion. Obviously this period of Canadian history is deeply personal, and I’m curious how much research went into the collection, or if you approached the project more as a memoir of family recollection?
The 1837 Rebellion was planned in my great grandfather's parlour, along with it being planned in many other rebel parlours including the Lount parlour, the Matthews parlour, the Anderson's parlour and in fields, pubs and so on. The Shepards were just one of the leading Reform families who became Rebels, willing to give their lives to  bring in fair voting laws. One of my publishers thought this was interesting and should be included in my bio.

I had been writing poems about my parents and decided to write one about my grandmother. I suddenly became aware that very little had been written about the indignities and suffering of women in the aftermath of the Rebellion. My grandmother was an intelligent, informed woman. Her first husband was an MP--her second, a Judge. Her father had spent time in jail, simply because he founght for an honest vote. She was reduced to living in one room in our house and I never heard her complain. Family lore has it that she built Toronto's Isabella Hotel and lost all her money running it. I grew up listening to her stories.

My research is detailed at the back of Rebel Women, but I am enormously lucky that a Shepard cousin, Paul Litt, whom I had never met, telephoned me one day to say he'd like to meet me for lunch. I discovered that he is a graduate historian (Victoria College, U. of T.), former President of the York Pioneer and Historical Society, and who is now a Board Member of Heritage Toronto. If I floundered in my facts, I contacted Paul. He often telephoned me from North Bay, Sudbury, Yellowknife and once somewhere out in the mid-west to claify and talk about our family. Of course I dedicated the book to him along with my husband and children. I walk every day in Wilket Creek Park (part of Sunnybrook, named after my great great Aunt Nancy's family) and i could hear the women's voices urging me on.

5. What do you feel your years in journalism brought to your writing and writing life? Or are the two entirely separate?
My years of journalism at the Toronto Star (Family section) brought me discipline and an enormous range of experience. It gave me a platform for my work and taught me to listen very very carefully, under the guidance of two wonderful editors: Betty Stapleton and Helen Palmer. I interviewed anthropologist Margaret Mead, spent a morning with author Ayn Rand (The Fountainhead), interviewed Ben Gurion (Israel's P.M.)'s daughter; flew up to the Arctic to tour the now defunct DEW (Distant Early Warding) line; had dinner with actor Gregory Peck and his wife Veronique (former Paris Match reporter); wrote a sewing column; attended a premier of one of his ballet's with famous Broadway impressario Sol Hurok; attended a Liberace party, a Danny Kaye party and turned down Elvis Presley's invitation to dinner after his press conference at Maple Leaf Gardens (I married two months previously). I also wrote up a lot of weddings and proofread the paper every day. I freelanced at night.

I feel my writing life now still contains the always aiming for perfection and must meet the deadline, mentality, connected to my years as a reporter. At Neil McCarl's death last year (Sports writer for the Star--his wife was a dear friend), I lost my last connection to reporters I had worked and partied with.

6. Literary awards have been known to shine spotlights on individual works and authors, as well as writing generally, but has also sometimes brought with it a particular kind of pressure, and a frustration for those works overlooked by awards. As a writer, reader and, now, shortlisted writer, what are your feelings on literary award culture generally?
Any literary awards are enormously important in bringing writers work to the attention of the reading and buying public. It does bring pressure, but it's very hard to publicize one's own work effectively. A spotlight on the short-listed helps, I feel, with memoirs and novels. Whether it helps with poetry, I don't know. My first poetry book, Mother I'm So Glad You Taught Me How To Dance is still being read in the libraries after 25 years,  but was never short-listed for anything. My other books were all short-listed.

Different writers have advanced much further than others and have different tastes in poetry and literature. This applies to judges. But judges are presumably respected by their peers, for their own body of work, whether I myself happen to read their own books or not. For their willingness to spend time doing an often thankless and criticized job, I thank them.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Maxine Chernoff, Here


Rowboats like slippers fill the harbor. Lights bob like lemons on water. The ninetieth day of summer passes without remark. Under the sign for ultimate cures, amber bottles with dry, suspicious corks balance on a shiny plank. Near a trellis that leans like a private idea, he pauses by the almond trees teeming with bees and finds a stick whose underside reveals decay in the greenness of August. His future holds no promise. He lays down his book of curious beasts. He likes the snake-headed woman whose shoulders are bare, except for a shawl, having found such wonders in a market thick with sugar and scarves, honey and dates, hills of coins and blue glass charms near a stone wall made in a war. He prefers evening in its hopeful shadows when old men get lost in thought. On such a night, he had first seen her in a wagon near a hexagonal marker. It seemed her arms were filled with air.

San Francisco poet, fiction writer and editor Maxine Chernoff’s fourteenth trade poetry collection, Here (Denver CO: Counterpath, 2014), is a striking work of prose poems, and easily contains the strongest and most compelling work I’ve seen from her so far. Here fiercely places itself in contemporary American space, composing a series of poetic prose-blocks that riff and play off ideas, concepts and epigraphs by writer such as Erich Auerbach, Wallace Stevens, Walt Whitman, Rimbaud, Wallace Stegner, Lisa Fishman, Linda Bishop, Emerson, Fanny Howe, W.H. Auden, Virginia Woolf, Theseus, Bachelard, Paul Ricoeur, Heidegger, Martine Bellen, Elaine Scarry and Montaigne, a number of whom are quoted more than once. It is as though, through the use of quoted lines to epigraph so many of the poems, Chernoff is articulating a series of trajectories quite literally from there to Here, using the quotes to allow her to speak of how it is, precisely, we might have arrived at this point, and what this might mean for where, exactly, here might be. 


Operators fly the plans from air-conditioned trailers thousands of miles from the war zone.

Porch lights appear—it is 1962 when the woman wearing a pink chemise retrieves the newspaper from her lawn.

We settle on news of our day, how video-games have turned deadly, how children have learned the ready skills of removal.

A book’s pages blow from middle to end to beginning. Nothing passes or ends. Nothing claims the text’s attention. Words float upward, launched by hands.

The usual mixed with the strange is the stuff of dreams, the stuff of waking to distinctions sharp as paper, soft as candles. Far beyond shadows, a light whose origin is mystery; a new sense of the word means death, sudden as music.

Maps suggest the land has no bou-ndaries, countries no borders. Objects of interest move on a grid: men and women, cattle, and a stray goat with stone-colored eyes.

The ache of the past connects to the present—how doorbells used to ring and strangers call. Fear was small and hovered on lips. Olives floated listlessly in drinks as people whispered local scandal in front rooms blue with information.

Surgeons of excision, men enact death’s plans. Its subtlety knows no limits; out-manned and outmaneuvered, we practice remembering.

In his concluding essays to Carl F. Klinck’s Literary History of Canada (1965), Northrop Frye famously offered that the question “Where is here?” was the central preoccupation of Canadians in their search for identity, and the question has been asked in a variety of forms by writers, theorists, artists, television producers and tens of thousands of others in Canada since. South of the border, the question of such has been asked in an entirely different form by its poets, with numerous contemporary poets such as Rae Armantrout, Fanny Howe, Brenda Hillman and others writing on the War in Iraq, the financial crises and big bank bailouts, the housing crises and unemployment, and a multitude of other issues that have plagued the personal, cultural and financial states of the United States. In Here, Chernoff explores and references numerous of these crises that have worked their ways through American media, as well as various American military incursions and interventions, while also exploring more personal concerns. As she writes to open the poem “A HOUSE IN SUMMER”:

In which a woman wonders when her son will grow taller, when the weather will clear and her husband stop throwing his negative shadow on clocks and lamps and objects as they are. Will it grow lighter despite his darkness, her eyes dry, though they are mostly dry, despite the feeling of tears welling up as she wishes for the boy to have more light.

Throughout Here, Chernoff grabs hold of these uncertainties to ask her own questions of here-ness, and attempts, if not precisely to answer the question of geographic, spiritual or intellectual placement, but to open up what those questions might be that could help direct any constructive answers. This is not Chernoff writing out a map, but showing you how one might learn to navigate. This is a book composed of thoughtful music, elegant in the way each line unfolds, steady and insistent and accumulative, like water in a small stream. “You are not someone with a plan,” she writes, at the end of the poem “ANOSOGNOSIA,” “you are a woman made of bone and lace, a woman made of iron and nakedness, a woman made of words and excuses for them, you are under their care, you are subject to a plan that will enable you to be among them, to gather stars if you wish but keep them secret.”


The muse of forgetfulness meets the muse of forgetting on an afternoon road. They wander together until a lamp intervenes and the scene is erased.

Late December’s dimness lifts the green toward sky’s smooth paper. The world is a camera. Words tie you to sparrows fence-colored in gardens of nothing past its season. Everything is a charm, its gold-threaded ending lost in the story.

Sunday, April 27, 2014


Vain Cures. Subsect. 2.

Balance passions and answers. For a body is like a clock,
if one wheel is amiss, all the rest are disordered. The whole
fabric suffers.

Express doubt that politicians speak pure forms. Now only
signifies those born to misaffected parents. Points to effects
of imagination, and other maladies.

Awareness of a system acting upon the body, weighing
it down. On the other hand, an image to become acquainted with
as firm ground.

Bodily materials are either simple or mixed, vary according
to place. I’m devoted to a small room, and a closed curtain.
adjust an eyewitness.

He is happy that can perform properly. Vain cures, no purpose.
Cause for punishment. Extricate from a labyrinth of doubts
and errors.

Victory was uncertain, acknowledging all of our offenses. We
may never be relieved of our diseases. The conceit alone troubles
the craft of solitary living. (Andrew McEwan)

Guest-edited by Brad Shubat, the third issue of the collaborative COUGH includes work by Jack Clarke, Oliver Cusimano, Michael Boughn, Andrew McEwan, Brad Shubat, Kate Van Dusen, Kelly Semkiw, Victor Coleman, Andre Spears, Jess Taylor, Zach Buck, Jay MillAr, Jonathan Pappo, Tyler Crick, Dominique Russel, Mat Laporte, Nick Edwards, David Peter Clark and Ed Dorn. COUGH exists in the same vein of the late lamented TADS produced out of Vancouver, or our own writers journal, The Peter F Yacht Club, with a rotating editorship from an informal group of writers based out of a particular locale. Toronto’s COUGH appears to have been spearheaded by Victor Coleman and Michael Boughn [see my review of the first two issues here], with the encouragement and support of a growing base of younger writers, some of whom might have emerged out of either of their workshops run through the Toronto New School of Writing. What appeals about this journal, much as the other two examples I referenced, is the opportunity for interested readers to see just what a number of the individuals within the informal group have been up to lately, in their writing. Given some of the writers on the list, specifically Victor Coleman and Kate Van Dusen (who had an amazing piece in the one more once anthology), there really aren’t that many venues in which to see new work by a number of the contributors.

He returns again to the red bowl. Meditatively drinks. Dreams
Of meaty mouse-jewels and with phosphorescent eyes gazes past
Darkness into a lunar question: Where to go next? Returns to the
Red bowl. Moon reflected on white sprats. White chin free of collar.
Breathes laboriously: Almost there. Reflects on a silver couch in an
Irish cave. On duties of oracle and hunter of companion and archetype.
Sighs and returns to the task of: Ending. Goes slowly past glass patio
Doors, drinks from red bowl, walks in a circle around red and pauses.
How best to instruct the souls of these so greedily needing to stroke
Magnificent furry orange? A lifetime will stop with its fantasy of Love
Courts. Two red-haired women in an oak tree calling and calling him
Puss. Recollection of opening the complicated latch to aid the drunken
Poe’s return home. Return home to the red bowl. Drink. The greater
Their love for him the bigger more perfectly proportionate their world. (Kate Van Dusen, “The Red Bowl”)

The range of the material in the issue, hefty at some sixty-four 8 ½ x 11 pages, is impressive, and occasionally runs a bit roughshod in terms of consistency of quality, but is rich in vibrant energy. The strength of the journal, in many ways, comes from the feeling that the reader is invited into the process of the writing workshop, able to witness a group of writers attempting, listening and learning. Writing is a conversation, after all. There is more worth reading here than in many Canadian literary trade journals, and far more examples of writers who are trying out new shapes and forms, pushing the art to see just what might emerge.

vocal apparatus contracted and distended


letting go
dog bolts
ambiguity of
what makes


magnified fury
short changed
fried circuit
two shakes
of a dead dog’s


echoes from
monosyllabic sting beasts
copulas erupt
booking it
fumigated hive
where a voice
incensed at its absence
roars jurasically (Nick Edwards)

Inserted into this issue is a little flyer, also, that reads:

If you’d like to support this and subsequent issues of COUGH, please send your contribution to COUGH, c/o M. Boughn, 11 Conrad Ave. Toronto ON M6G 3G4

COUGH #4 will be an issue of collaborative works edited by Jonathan Pappo -- #5 will be devoted to the Poetics of Music edited by Zach Buck -- #6 will be edited by Laine Bourassa & Tyler Crick concerning writing from the Left Coast.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Six Questions with Murray Reiss: 2014 Gerald Lampert Award Shortlist

From early April to early June, I’m featuring short interviews with the authors of the six shortlisted titles for each of the three awards run through The League of Canadian Poets – the Raymond Souster Award, the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and the Pat Lowther Award. Today’s feature is Salt Spring Island poet Murray Reiss, whose book The Survival Rate of Butterflies in the Wild (Regina SK: Hagios Press, 2013) is on the shortlist for the 2014 Raymond Souster Award. See my previous Gerald Lampert Award shortlist interviews with Julie Joosen and Jordan Abel. The winners to all three awards will be announced on Saturday, June 7, 2014 at The League of Canadian Poets 2014 Annual General Meeting in Toronto.

Murray Reiss was born in Sarnia, Ontario, and lives on Salt Spring Island, BC, with his wife Karen, a ceramic sculptor. Since moving to Salt Spring in 1979 he's been a pizza maker and ice cream scooper, special education teacher and child care worker, and coordinator of the Salt Spring Water Council. For four years in Vancouver he was B.C. coordinator of Tools for Peace, doing solidarity work to support Nicaragua's revolution. He currently works as a freelance editor and environmental writer. His poetry and prose have been published in literary magazines and anthologies in Canada and the United States, including Rocksalt: An Anthology of Contemporary BC Poetry and Poems from Planet Earth, and short-listed for a number of prizes and awards. His chapbook, Distance from the Locus, was published in 2005 by Mothertongue Press. He performs with singer-songwriter Phil Vernon as the "folken-word" duo Midnight Bridge, with one CD out so far, and his recent spoken word climate action performance poems can be found on YouTube. The Survival Rate of Butterflies in the Wild is his first full-length collection.

1. The Survival Rate of Butterflies in the Wild is your first trade collection of poetry. What was your process of originally putting the manuscript together, and how long did it take? How do you feel your concerns as a writer has developed over the space of starting the collection to finally seeing a finished copy at your front door? How do you feel the work, and even the process of writing, evolved?
The book grew out of a single image — father your eyes that snow in Poland / bury me in my crib — that came to me over 30 years ago. Over the years, long before I conceived of Survival Rate as a book I wrote a number of the poems that, in one form or another, eventually found their way into the manuscript. It was only when I received a Canada Council grant that I sat down to write the book as a book. That process took about six months. A key event in the book's evolution to its final form was a ten-day workshop/retreat I did at Sage Hill in Saskatchewan with Priscila Uppal. There were five of us in our group, and all of us were working on manuscripts of deeply obsessional personal material, drenched in trauma and pain. Over those ten days I drastically edited, restructured and rewrote much of the book. Emblematic was the process by which a three-page poem that just never worked became a four-line poem that is now pivotal. My concern became to explain less and less with each draft so that each poem was clearly situated in that liminal space I call Poland-before-I-was-born.

2. Who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
When I was writing the book, Eastern Europeans — Paul Celan, Tadeusz Rosewicz, Vasko Popa, Primo Levi and Jean Amery; the Spanish speaking magi — Cesar Vallejo, Lorca, Neruda. Now, the poets I keep returning to include Tony Hoagland, Bob Hicok, Gerald Stern, Charles Simic. As well as a few new (to me) discoveries: Patricia Smith's Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah and Jane Springer's Murder Ballads.

3. You’ve lived on Salt Spring Island for quite some time, and I’m curious as to how the community of writers around you, as well as the landscape of Salt Spring, have contributed to your work. Do you think you might have been a different kind of writer had you lived in another part of the country?
Salt Spring has been an incredibly nourishing and supportive place to live for many practitioners of marginal arts, poetry included. Let me quote from my introductory remarks from my book launch here: "I want to acknowledge — and appreciate — what a nourishing and sustaining home we've created here on Salt Spring for all things literary and, I like to think, poetry in particular. In a world of constant pressure to conflate society with the economy, culture with commodities, and value with price, artists of every kind find ourselves increasingly marginalized. And in terms of this dominant market paradigm, it's hard to think of a more marginal enterprise than poetry. As my mother used to say, "From this you can make a living?" Well mom, probably not. But, with a bit of luck, you can make yourself a life. You can't, however, do it alone, so again, thank you all for coming out tonight and for your steadfast support of the creative spirit wherever it may alight."

I would have been a different person had I lived in another part of the country (and I often say I can't imagine where else I would want to live) so I suppose I would have been a different kind of writer too. Much of my work is very different from the poems in Survival Rate — it feeds on and is fed by my daily life here, my home, garden, loved ones, trees and streams and coastlines. I find it hard to imagine writing precisely those poems were I living anywhere else.

4. The Survival Rate of Butterflies in the Wild explores your father’s deep and dark silence around the Holocaust, specifically the fact of him having lost his entire family to it. How were you able to approach such a difficult terrain through writing, and what do you feel the experience taught you?
Writing was the only way I could approach the terrain of my father's silence. I'd never been able to approach it in life, when he was alive (he died when I was 19). Writing, for me, has never been about answers. It's always been a way of posing questions. Another line that is central to the book goes, My father set me an impossible riddle before I was born. I've always been more interested in impossible riddles than answers. In questions that you have to answer — in some sense your life, or the meaning of your life, depends on your answering them — only you can't. Survival Rate lives and breathes in that space of impossibility.

One thing writing this book taught me was that no matter how intensely personal the experience (I mean, I was writing about growing up the only child/son of a father who learned, just months before I was born that his entire family had been killed in Poland) if you get it right it will speak to all kinds of people who, no, have not had that precise experience (who else has?), not exactly, but recognize in it their own experiences of loss, estrangement, and incomprehension in the face of the human condition.

5. How did the manuscript come together as poetry, as opposed to, say, writing it out as non-fiction or fiction? What was it about the form of poetry that allowed you to articulate some of those silences?
This book could have been written in no other language but that of poetry. Well, maybe dreams, but that's too private. In what other tongue can you write of your father bringing home a mannequin to teach you to live like a Jew, or how the infamous Dr. Mengele delightedly experimented on you and your clubfoot twin? People sometimes ask me if these poems are what I experienced growing up. I always answer, No, they're what I've made out of what I experienced. Or, too be more precise, out of the little I remember, conjure, construe—Eliot's famous "fragments I have shored against my ruin." What I've made out of all that is poetry. Or, perhaps, poetry made itself.

6. Literary awards have been known to shine spotlights on individual works and authors, as well as writing generally, but has also sometimes brought with it a particular kind of pressure, and a frustration for those works overlooked by awards. As a writer, reader and, now, shortlisted writer, what are your feelings on literary award culture generally?
I've always approached awards as a consumer, and shortlists as a kind of Consumer Reports rough guide to help me winnow through the otherwise unmanageable flood of poetry, novels, stories, essays, published every year. Now that I'm a shorlisted writer myself, I hope it helps a few more readers find their way to my book. 

Friday, April 25, 2014

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Morani Kornberg-Weiss

Morani Kornberg-Weiss was born in Tel Aviv, Israel and spent her early childhood in Southern California. After completing her military service, B.A. in Psychology and English, and the beginning of her graduate degree in Israel, she moved to Buffalo, NY to pursue a Ph.D. in English at SUNY Buffalo's Poetics Program. Her scholarship revolves around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the lyric tradition. Her poetry has been published in multiple venues including The Last Stanza, Voices Israel, Genius Floored, Omnia Vanitas Review, kadar koli, eccolinguistics, and arc. Her Hebrew translation of Karen Alkalay-Gut’s Miracles & More was published by Keshev in 2012. She currently lives in Los Angeles, CA with her partner, two cats, dog, and a lentil.

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 debut poetry book, Dear Darwish, is the outcome of a slow and complex process that lead to a shift in my historical, cultural, and political outlooks. In other words, the “change” occurred and the book was conceived as a result.

I have spent my life moving back and forth between Israel and the U.S. When I started my Ph.D. in English/Poetics at SUNY Buffalo in 2009, I was exposed to a wide range of poetry that radically altered my writing practices. The book showcases the change in my writing “style.” I experiment with different forms, such as epistolary, prose-poetry, borrowed text, and longer, more sequential poems, since several poems naturally lend themselves to these forms. As Robert Creeley stated: "form is never more than an extension of content.” My poetry now feels “different” because I allow the poems to emerge in whatever form they need to be/come.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
When I look back at my childhood, it seems like I have always been writing poetry: jotting down words on paper, assembling lines along the margins of notebooks, and even hanging up a favorite poem in my bedroom in elementary school (“Warning” by Jenny Joseph). (Okay, I love the color purple too!) I started writing regularly during high school when I moved back to Israel and had to relearn Hebrew. I wrote poems in English while trying to immerse myself in an old-new language and culture. I don’t think I was ever aware that these were poems per se. Rather, I felt compelled to write about my life and my surroundings, and poetry became the outlet for recording those experiences.  

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?

A project begins with an idea. Sometimes, I start working on a project right away. Other times it takes months and years for the ideas to evolve and for me to even become aware that there’s a “project” that can emerge out of them. Writing is a craft that seems to have a pace of its own (which can also be a source of great frustration when the projects are slow-going). In the end, every poem is treated as a separate entity: some require heavy revision (or are left out entirely) and others only require subtle changes or none at all.

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I think it’s a little bit of both. I am often preoccupied with a few major issues and end up writing poems about them. The poems, in retrospect, can then be compartmentalized into book projects revolving around one major theme. But all of my poems begin with a thought, one so overbearing that I am (unknowingly) made aware of my own cognitive thought processes and begin to write – a word, a line, a stanza – that might potentially evolve into a poem. I’ve been practicing the art of being mindful when this occurs.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Poetry, for me, is first and foremost a communal endeavor (even when it occurs in isolation between writer-reader-book). I love attending as well as participating in readings. I have met many great friends and writers through these shared spaces. I am open to the possibility of letting other people’s words and languages seep into my own creative thought processes and therefore always have my notebook and pen in hand. Reading my work allows me to share my poems through my voice and my body in ways that do not exist on the page alone. The poems become alive (or I give them a particular “life” depending on my tone and mood at the moment). Plus, it’s nice to get feedback from friends and/or strangers, especially when I have worked on a project for so long.

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 am currently completing my doctorate, which focuses on the lyric tradition, transnationalism, and Israeli and Palestinian relations. Several poems located in Dear Darwish were written as a result of my research. I consider my creative and scholarly endeavors as part of one larger project in which I examine questions of memory, nationalism, and trauma; I aim at understanding how particular memories and cultural practices are shaped and later perpetuated. Poetry becomes an alternative space where I can challenge the values that I “naturally” inherited. I’m not sure if there are specific questions that I ask; rather, the entire book is a collection of several possible answers.

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, personally, poetry is a form of activism. I think language is charged, multi-layered, and political; the act of writing, therefore, is a dynamic process where writer and world interact in meaningful ways. Poets, as Shelley puts it, “are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” I would like to think we are acknowledged and that part of the beauty and magic of poetry (and writing in general) is that we never know what seeds we plant in our readers’ minds and when those seeds will emerge as new modes of thinking and experiencing the world. I think the writer should just write, share, read, write more, and share again. Although we do not always have the privilege of defining our own roles as writers, we can, at least, define the type of poems we wish to create and disseminate.

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

Dear Darwish was released by BlazeVOX [books], and the wonderful publisher Geoffrey Gatza gave me the artistic freedom to edit the work as I see fit. I am grateful for a very supportive group of friends who read drafts of the manuscript. Their invaluable feedback helped shape the book.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Many writers have given this advice in different shapes and forms: just write, write, write and let go. I listen to people who encourage messiness and chaos, are aware of the non-linear process of writing, and support spontaneity. I am learning how every poem is a thought/work-in-progress.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to translation)? What do you see as the appeal?
I had the great fortune of translating Israeli/American poet Karen Alkalay-Gut’s collection Miracles & More to Hebrew. I rediscovered what a beautiful language Hebrew is through this process and also learned the degree in which languages are so deeply and culturally charged. This is where community is at its best: translating someone else’s work is a huge honor and gift, but also a form of responsibility. I constantly had to renegotiate and relearn the potentiality of each poem and what it can do in another language. This process heightened my sensitivity to language-use in my own work: I use words with caution.

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 met Israeli novelist Amos Oz when he visited Buffalo in October 2011. He asked me if I write, and my reply was, “Yes, but not enough.” He said, “Haval” which means “too bad” in Hebrew. In order to conceal my shame, I inquired about his writing process. He compared his routine to that of a shop-owner claiming that he must keep the store open everyday. He said (I’m paraphrasing): “On some days the shop is full and on others it is empty. But if I don’t keep it open every single day, I won’t know how many customers walk in.” I have tried opening up a shop of my own, but it is not open 24/7. When I am immersed in a project, however, I tend to write everyday (even several times a day).

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I read. I free-write. I read more. I search the web for articles, blogs, and essays about the issues I’m working through. I revisit some of my own poems. I examine the stacks of old notebooks that are filled with my handwriting and remind myself that I have already produced quite a lot of writing and that I can do it – again and again. And, when necessary, I take a break. I let the project sit and rest peacefully until I am ready to engage with it once again.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
“Home” is many things: Tarzana, CA = the smell of 7-Eleven; Tel Aviv, Israel = a street vendor deep-frying falafel balls and then stuffing eggplant and tahini into a piece of pita bread; Buffalo, NY = the smell of my dog after playing in a pile of fresh snow; and most recently: Los Angeles, CA = the smell of my favorite flower, plumeria.

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 am a huge fan of ekphrasis, and visual art has certainly influenced my work. I have written several poems that result from my admiration for Frida Kahlo and her artwork. My writing has also been influenced by conversations with people and their experiences. For instance, Dear Darwish incorporates an encounter with a former neighbor in Buffalo, NY: She had just planted fresh bulbs of flowers in her front yard, and as I walked by with my dog, she complained that the neighborhood squirrels had been stealing them. This image later seeped into what became the first poem/letter of the project. I am very attentive to my surroundings – people, objects, interactions, nature, and situations – and am fascinated by the ways in which they travel into my work. 

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Here is a list of writers, in no particular order, whose work and writings have been tremendously important to me: Mahmoud Darwish, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Rabindranath Tagore, Pablo Neruda, Ilan Pappe, Gideon Levy, Jack Kerouac, Vered Mosenzon, Gabriel García Márquez, Margaret Atwood (mainly her poetry), Sahar Khalifeh, Adrienne Rich, Karen Alkalay-Gut, Naomi Shihab Nye, Nawal El Saadawi, and J.M. Coetzee.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Read and speak Arabic fluently (beyond my current beginner’s reading level), sky dive, visit India, and get a tattoo.

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?
I almost studied Biomedical Engineering as an undergraduate and later contemplated a career in Clinical Psychology. But if I could attempt another occupation it would either be a human rights attorney or the Israeli Minister of Education. No doubt.  

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
The question is phrased very interestingly: what makes one do anything? The verb indicates an external force that causes something to happen. Writing, I think, is involuntary for me. It derives from an inner desire to make sense of my surroundings through language and is often beyond my (conscious) control. Nawal El Saadawi once stated that her writing arises from dissatisfaction or anger. I can relate to her sentiments: when I feel that something is unjust, usually in our society, I am compelled to write about it.

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

Ina May's Guide to Childbirth completely altered my view on the unnecessary medical interventions that occur during childbirth. It opened my eyes to natural and unmedicated labor and birth. It inspired me to work on a new book project. (I’m currently expecting my first child!)

One of the most recent films I watched was Judgment at Nuremberg. I taught this film in a Literature and Law survey course and was amazed at how students were able to apply aspects of the film into their understanding of contemporary American culture and politics. Reading books is a solitary practice, whereas watching films often occurs in public spaces. In the classroom, there’s room for discussion and so the film was “great” in the sense that I witnessed how students sharpened their critical thinking.

20 - What are you currently working on?
I am working on a project revolving around pregnancy, labor, birth, and motherhood. I am learning more about how the medical world has taken control over one of the most natural biological processes women can experience and am concerned with the ways in which women’s perceptions of their pregnant bodies is shaped by current cultural trends. I am also in the process of completing another project that I began a few years ago, Folding into Her Self, which examines the relationship between origami and pornography.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;