Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Today would have been my mother's seventy-fifth birthday,

Myself, with mum and my cousin Kim at 1293 Ridgemont.

Monday, June 29, 2015

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Travis Cebula and Sarah Suzor

Travis Cebula lives with his wife and trusty dogs in Colorado, where he writes, edits and teaches creative writing. He graduated from the MFA program at Naropa University in 2009—the same year he founded Shadow Mountain Press, a small press that focuses on hand-made editions of poetry chapbooks. His poetry, stories, essays, reviews, and photography have appeared internationally. He is the author of four full-length collections of poetry, including Ithaca, One Year in a Paper Cinema, and After the Fox with Sarah Suzor. You can find him in Paris every summer teaching with the Left Bank Writers Retreat.

Sarah Suzor's full-length collection of poetry, The Principle Agent, won the 2010 Hudson Prize and was published by Black Lawrence Press in 2011. She also has a collaboration After the Fox, which is co-authored with Travis Cebula (Black Lawrence Press, 2014). Her reviews and interviews can be found in Tarpaulin Sky and Rain Taxi, and she has recently guest blogged for the Best American Poetry series. She lives in Venice, California where she is a founding editor for Highway 101 Press, a correspondent for Omnidawn’s online magazine OmniVerse, and a guest lecturer for the Left Bank Writers Retreat in Paris.

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?

The difference between being a published author and not being one is absolutely everything and positively nothing. I went to a Buddhist school, so that doesn’t sound like complete nonsense to me. Or maybe it does. I adore that first book. Did it change me? Who knows. My first chapbook might have arrived at the perfect time, just as I was graduating from my MFA program. It was the result of a fellow alumnus’ efforts to start up a small press, as well as the result of my final portfolio for the best workshop I ever had. Even more importantly, the book may have given me a concrete touchstone that allowed for a smooth transition from the reality of being a student to the much more ephemeral existence of being just a writer in the world, or an author. A chapbook provides a vaguely defined life with a sense of possibility—a future bright with potential to keep one writing through a lot of rejection letters. Or it’s a doorstop. Or it’s a little pile of something to burn when the money runs out for heating bills. Or it’s a good reason to have a basement or to hang onto that old storage unit even after you’ve grown up and bought a house. A first book has value in social settings, too. You should see how friends’ eyes light up when I tell them they can buy my book online. Imagine my eyes when they don’t. In terms of relating this strange life to friends and family it could be impossible to overstate the value of having tangible results that testify to long hours of solitary effort. It’s a glimpse behind a closed door, if anyone cares to look. The first book was called Some Exits. That’s how many things started.

My first chapbook changed everything for me. EtherDome Chapbooks selected my manuscript It was the season, then. for publication in 2009. It was such a precious, precious moment. I still just love to look at the tiny book. Elizabeth Robinson and Colleen Lookingbill were the EtherDome editors at the time, and I just don’t think there’s ever enough hours in a day to express my appreciation for how much confidence that publication provided me. As I write and publish more, I actually find myself cycling back to that style of writing I used then. It was sparse and certainly insecure. Charming.

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

Poetry came to me through fiction, or a notion of fiction (I happen to consider even non- fictions “fictions”). Fiction came to me through poetry. I chose to concentrate my efforts into writing more poetic pieces simply because I love that poetry forces a reader to make implications. It feels less intrusive, and therefore more universal. More melodic, too. Often in stories, or a story of sorts, the only details I care about are the ones that can sing to me. And sing beautifully. Or, maybe it was just that Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein made me laugh, and then I memorized all the songs I heard on the radio, which are all poetry, too, and wanted to create something lasting from the material of language. A hope grew that something timeless and musical could come of all this. And so the threads of fiction wove their way into verse—because the best songs almost have a story somewhere in them. And if you ask William Carlos Williams, with whom I happen to agree with on a lot of things, the best stories have a poem somewhere in them. Or, I could just say that I’m a romantic in both the big and little “r” senses, and note that poetry was always the most direct writing route to that sensibility.

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 wind blew all of the dead leaves to one side of the pond overnight, and it wasn’t the side you’d expect. Somehow I got lucky enough to be born into a world chock full of stuff to write about. The key is always paying attention well enough to notice the details. Thus, the inception of a writing project can take as little time as it takes to finish a walk with my dog, see a street sign, or, in the case of the latest book, get an email from a friend inviting me to read with her in New York. Once the motives arrive—or the angels descend, or the martians, or the New York Times, or the crows, or the duende, or whatever floats a poet’s boat—the rest is only a matter of time. But I guess that’s the question. How much time? Poems tend to come in fits and starts for me. Or they don’t. They pile up by the tens over the course of a week. Or they don’t. In one case I finished the “generation” phase of a manuscript over the course of a stupefying span of six hours (96 poems). My right hand didn’t work for days. For After the Fox, the process was pretty typical, with the flurries of writing spread out over the course of a little over a year. At the same time, it might have been completely atypical. It’s hard to quantify typical when it comes to poetry. I tend to have 10-12 manuscripts in various stages of completion at any given time, all of which are completely different from each other. Some look nearly identical as they move from draft toward completion, like twins in pigtails and matching dresses, while others bear little resemblance whatsoever from before to after. Those instances when editing is minimal make the process feel deceptively simple, like one-to-one relationships and dictation. Nearly all the editing and sequencing takes place in the digital world. But the hand-written versions of my poems have usually been rewritten in my head several times before getting scratched down, and even then they are barely legible due to all the arrows, notes, and scribbles all over them. I’ve been told I have neat handwriting, but the end products of my notebooks are nearly inscrutable. Some of these go straight into the computer and then into a manuscript. One and done. There are also poems living inside my laptop that have been waiting years for resolution. They may or may not ever emerge from that digital cave. How long does it take? I guess a summarized answer would be something like this: the writing process goes quickly and the editing process goes slowly. Except when it doesn’t. A dare to write a little something for a reading in New York turned out to be a book four years later. So, there’s that. Part of the time in between had things happening. A lot didn’t.

Or there’s that wonderful moment when the book writes itself. When your life writes itself, when you don’t mind whether you’re walking through leaves, or snow or sand. That’s usually the only way I can come up with anything anyone would pay to read. I tend to sit back, and let the words spill. Eat them. Breathe them. There’s no timing to any of it, really. You know when you’re holding a golden ticket. And you know when you’re not.

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’m a booker. But, a book takes an idea, a good idea. A good idea takes a lot of sifting, writing, processing and understanding how you’d like to portray yourself to your readers next time around. That’s a lot to consider, but it’s always worth the time and energy. Always. But maybe, all of the pieces that fall from the mouths of Martians, angels, muses, or whoever while I’m out walking the dog, or running, or driving around town don’t necessarily belong to a sequence; but that’s an important role for me—to sort through and recognize how disparate aspects of experience fit together as a whole. I may always be thinking toward a book, but individual poems rarely get created in a specific order just for that purpose. The poems have lives of their own, and sometimes I have the privilege of being their conductor. Sometimes it takes a few of them, say ten or so, to make me recognize that there’s something organized happening. Other times, there’s a loose plan (a theme, a constraint, a story) in place from the get-go. That’s where the good ideas come into play.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
For someone who nearly threw up the first time I had to give a speech in junior high school, I certainly seem to do a lot of readings. I both love and loathe performing in public. It’s exhausting. It’s invigorating. At the best of times, it’s like being pilloried and pelted with the most delicious red velvet cupcakes you could possibly imagine. I’m flattered to have the opportunity to perform my work, in no small part because I get to hang out with other writers and friends afterwards—most of whom are way better at all of this than I am—but it does make me nervous as hell most of the time. That’s another thing having a book is good for. Performance jitters. A book has enough mass to it that it doesn’t rattle like a sheet of paper does when your hands are trembling. A book has the force of conviction (picture a southern preacher thumping a Bible in a revival tent), and it’s comforting to have work in hand that you know will perform well. It’s a nightmare when it betrays you. Life is about learning hard lessons. In the case of After the Fox, readings were and are very much part of the creative process. The manuscript started as an experiment, writing some new work for a reading at Poet’s House in New York. I wanted to read something new and special just to mark the occasion. So did my collaborator. That urge toward performance pervades the entire manuscript. Both of us continued to read portions of the book while it was being written. I think the performative aspects really help to underscore the dramatic content of the book. In some ways it’s like a script, and we both have roles to play. On the other hand, sometimes the roles get swapped. I becomes I. And vice versa. It can get confusing. Now there’s a reading tour. It might get easier to keep track of with time, or time might get easier to keep track of.

For me, the process of performing the work is essential, but exhausting. You’re a character, but you’re acting your own script. Over and over. However, there have been incredible moments at readings: the times when you know you are connecting with a person who you would have never otherwise encountered. I had the best compliment from an audience member once, she said, “After your reading, I see the world differently.” I could have died happily right then and there. That’s fuel for me. And that’s probably why I continue to write. I mean writing “can be” pretty narcissistic— imagining yourself holding something to say that someone else would want to hear. So readings are when all that combines, and you get to shine. You get to command. You get to see it all unfold. I like it. It’s tiring, but I really like it.

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?
Yes, I do. I have lots of theoretical concerns; writing (or any depiction of art) can turn into one life-long theoretical concern. I understand that, and am slightly weary of concentrating my efforts on any one theory, or having “theory” sway my books. My interests are more driven by the dichotomy of the human experience. We have loyalties, we have losses, we have fears and we have major, major loves. At some point, we also have to put all that aside and survive. And we do, or we die trying. It’s fascinating. Not dying, but the perseverance. I feel like that human tendency bleeds into many theoretical practices, or practices of theories.

But to the very last part of the question: “what do I think the current questions are?” I’d say, for art as a whole (art and all its theories, or theories of theories) the contemporary question lies within the contemporary artist pondering their place in this current social environment.  Where does art go from here? Where does meaning go from here? Because, as we know now, anything’s accessible in terms of “gaining access to,” so how do we differentiate what from what? Or, more importantly, do we even start differentiating anything?

Essentially, every project has its own theoretical concerns, and these are always evolving. Also, I’m leery of making theory the primary concern of any of my poetry. I just feel that poetry works best when it has a mix of the emotional, visceral, and cerebral too it. Purely “theoretical” poetry has a tendency to sway heavily towards the cerebral, which moves it away from a space where I feel poetry works best. That said, some theory is always good as a bit of the mix. I just don’t gamble the success or failure of a book on a reader being able to identify that I’m deliberately playing with the poetic field in a way that attempts to salvage poetry from paper pages in the burgeoning digital age. I’ve offered my work to some pretty astute readers and editors, and theory has never been the first place they’ve gone to with their reading. Ever. Even if a manuscript is dripping with it.

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?
Well, to start with, I appreciate a good story or poem—and therefore see value in the person who shares it. I could quit there and call that good. The push I see right now is for writers to be witnesses—to spot wrongs and call people out on them—social problems, global warming, unjust wars, etc. I’m a little different from the norm. I take a wider view. I happen to think that writers are anachronisms, and that the role of a writer is to be the garbage heap of every discarded human vocation. Writers are the bards, the rhetoricians, the naturalists, the humanists, the keepers of oral history, the scribes, the town criers, the philosophers, the chroniclers, the clerks, the dramatists, the mystics, the hermits, the court jesters, the traveling minstrels, and the creators of epics. We keep, restore, and conserve all that we can see of the world—and it is our curse to see a lot that others don’t—all the bits that have ever been and are now gone, all that are now and will someday be gone. It is our curse to maintain a durable record of our little corner of the phenomenal universe and also to defend and renew the medium by which we maintain it—language. Language is deceptively fragile. So, stewardship and durability are the watchwords. This is plenty of “should” to keep any one person busy for several lifetimes. Within that broad scope, some writers will charge themselves with a more specific goal, such as the salvaging of the English language from patriarchy; or some other worthy ethical mission, such as establishing social justice or ending war. A pastime that tiptoes along the precipice of self-indulgence often benefits from regular injections of ethical drive. I firmly believe that human beings have emotional connections with the each other and with the world at large, and that these connections exist at a very elemental level—the level of minutiae, if you will. For my projects I focus on the little things, the details that people often overlook, but that build into an understanding of a wider world. I believe in creating and fostering empathy. There is pressure in particulars. A human moment of frailty. A first kiss where teeth bump. A maple cracked by wind. A magpie with a candy wrapper. One scratch on a beer can by the road. The winter light on a doorway. How a triangle of shadow kills it. Or maybe I do the opposite and wander off into abstraction. Or I just see where the writing takes me. In the end, regardless of what I attempt, the reader has to contribute. It’s up to the reader to provide some meaning and purpose to the enterprise. It’s up to them to “do something” with what the writer has created, otherwise the enterprise is doomed to be solipsistic, regardless of motive. Or, if you prefer a simple answer, writers are writers because writing is cheaper than therapy. Take your pick.

I pick “language is deceptively fragile.” What a statement: one of our major forms of communication is flawed in its vulnerability. It is, perhaps, more human than humans. I just want to think about that for four hours. Or a lifetime. But, that says a lot about the role of writer, and I’d dare to venture a thought that maybe we writers are the preservers of Language (a Language). Judgments like “good” or “bad” are nothing that gets to enter this sphere, but we can take this vulnerable, accessible thing and turn it into whatever we’d like: a new opinion, a new perspective, or an ode to the past. That’s a powerful thought, and with that I come to my own conclusion that even is there isn’t a defined role for writers anymore, that doesn’t matters to me, because that role would have nothing to do with why I write. 

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Both sometimes, essential always.  Choosing an editor or an editorial staff to work with is like picking your friends. Do so wisely. I have had the pleasure of encountering very little editorial difficulties in terms of arguing my work’s case, but editors are people who should be looking out for your best interests as a writer, and in turn, their best interests are also at stake. At the end of the day yours is the product they are promoting. You are in charge of the product. They are in charge of whom they choose to promote. It’s no frequent gift. It’s also as variable as the angles of sunlight off snow on a winter afternoon. Editors are human, after all. Writers need different things at different times. Sometimes just a boost in the form of an acceptance letter is enough to keep writing, and sometimes writing is all you need. Other times promotional support and advocacy for a project are key. Other times, a manuscript or poem needs to be dismantled word by word and rebuilt. Rarely will one editor be able to collaborate with a writer on all of these at once, so over time you build up relationships with people and, ideally, the manuscript gets the attention it needs when it needs it.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
A clown professor in Paris told me to “breathe.” That’s been working out so far. Or the best advice might actually have been (about poetry in particular): “Nobody’s selling out, because nobody’s buying,” from Paul Vangelisti.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (collaboration to solo work)? What do you see as the appeal?
Collaborating is the easiest thing I’ve ever experienced as a writer. There are many reasons for this, the most fantastic of which is that I don’t have to come up with every idea on my own. I have a partner who I can use to generate ideas off of or from. It’s also refreshing to see what my partner will do with my ideas, how they’ll twist and turn under someone else’s control. Our new book, After the Fox just came out from Black Lawrence Press in September. We wrote that book so quickly together. There were periods of time where I had to step away from “responding” because just thinking about what I was going to write back would seriously consume me. For me, the key to a successful collaborative effort is one where both writers completely let the process generate; they put their egos aside; they don’t become competitive; when one is losing the steam, the other picks up the pace. It’s like any positive relationship: the spotlight isn’t the goal; the unity is goal, the harmony.

Then there’s the inescapable fact that all of poetry is collaborative, whether we want it to be or not. As writers, we are continually faced with relinquishing the illusion of exquisite control that we continually nurture while creating poems. Every time a work gets submitted, handled by an editor, or—and this is most important—engaged by a reader, we lose control of what we have created. There’s no telling what will come out of that engagement. It is always collaboration insofar as there are at least two agents always dictating the results, and they don’t always know what the other’s intentions are. Keeping conscious of this reality is a perfect mindset for traditional collaboration, in the sense of creation and generation of new material. In the perfect circumstances both participants can let go of their usual control and just let the work flow through them, in the process contributing to something that neither one would have been able to create on their own, in part or in whole.

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?
Darkness. Or maybe it’s just that my eyes are closed. My typical day starts with the alarm going off, and me hitting it with something. Usually my hand. Or maybe it starts with a dog climbing on my legs, or jumping (I hope accidentally) up and down on my groin. Or maybe my wife smacks the snooze button for the greater good and I get up to start the coffee. Maybe I make a smoothie. Maybe I make up a sack lunch. It’s hard to say, depending the way the day goes. Once the rest of the family is taken care of I usually have some time to write a new poem if I have something to write about. Or I usually respond to emails. Or write a review. Or submit some work to presses or journals. Or work out. Or put on some laundry. Or work on a syllabus. Or get to class to teach. Or jot down some lecture notes. Or take the dogs for a walk. Or sew chapbooks. Or maybe there just isn’t as much time for writing as I thought. In any case, morning and afternoon are almost always filled with either writing or not writing. But one of the nice things about being a poet is that you can even fit a bit of it in between delivering babies if you have to. Just ask William Carlos Williams. It’s important to keep perspective. Wandering through the produce section of a grocery store actually seems serene compared to a delivery room, so why not write? It’s also the nature of poetry that sometimes it flat refuses to be put on a back burner. Sometimes it’s a choice between writing a poem down and becoming a person who’s impossible to live with. Sometimes it all has to wait. Sometimes a collaborator calls and you really need to answer, to write the poem down even if the toast’s getting cold. And I hate cold toast unless it’s rye. But there it is. Traveling is good space, too—like a reading tour—because it provides some breathing room from most of the essential demands of life and work that tend to expand to fill all of the available time. Maybe I’m always writing and don’t even notice. Maybe I used to be a chef and still spend a lot of time collecting ingredients for when I have time to cook. Or maybe…
the answer exists in light, in a new day, in the simple feeling of a/the new opportunity to practice. I love to practice. I know this is rather cliché, but my friends tease me about the message they will put on my headstone, which is, “While you see a chance, take it.” I have no fixed writing routine, other than I can only allow myself so much time in a day to write creatively. Otherwise, it will consume my darkness and light. Meanwhile, a day consists of carrying on with responsibilities (sigh), but all the while collecting images, words and ideas for that one moment I see a chance to take time to practice.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Inspiration. Hmmm. This is the thing: my writing process is rarely stalled. I can usually practice the art of writing daily without encountering any trouble. However, it sometimes takes days and days of writing somewhat poor material until there is actually one or two lines worth keeping and working with. I tend to borrow from the world, nature, the news, or the vocabulary I observe people using. I use things that I encounter on a daily basis. If other readers can relate to some of those ideas: the manuscript is usually a success, if other readers can’t relate to some of those ideas: the manuscript usually collects a lifetime of dust on my shelf. Sometimes that old manuscript can lead to new work. A form gets borrowed or a minor theme gets explored in a new way.

But, attention is always the best cure for writer’s block. If you feel like you don’t have anything to write about, you’re probably just not paying attention to the world. There is a LOT out there. And in there. Pretty much everything has a poem in it—which is to say there’s pretty much always something miraculous in the seemingly mundane if you’re willing to look closely enough. And it doesn’t necessarily take that much time… A poem is a beautifully concise creature, and can grow out of very small inspiration and then blossom magnificently in the company of others like it within a longer manuscript. It really doesn’t take that much to get a poem started. Just write it. You can always decide later if it has anything truly important to say or not.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
My beloved has said to me on more than one occasion that home is wherever I am, and I share the sentiment. Home for me is more portable, that way, and maybe it smells like her hair fanned across a pillow. Maybe throw in a hint of sautéing onion and garlic, in the background, maybe some dry leaves, plum blossoms, or wet dog. Maybe it’s the smell of an old book or the sky just before rain. Maybe it’s a season, too. Like pine smoke in winter or cordite on the fourth of July. If you’re looking, you can smell home anywhere.

Nostalgia. I adore that concept. Home smells like memories smell. Like anything that enters your nose only to locate your heart in a specific moment and a specific place. And retrospect. Home smells like retrospect, like going back to those memories only to find yourself centrally located in the present.

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?
Every form of expression makes its way into my writing. I can find inspiration in anything from religious proverbs to Vincent Van Gogh to the lyrics from the newest pop song. Expression, and the way we identify with those who take a chance expressing themselves, is thoroughly important to me. I don’t care if it repulses me, or it attracts me, expression is embodied human psyche. And I love that. I don’t even care if one is portraying a lie. Again, it’s fascinating.

Additionally, and maybe more existentially, it’s hard to understand who’s going to believe what as truth. We’ve seen this throughout the history. We’ve experienced this through society’s ideologies, its expectations. It’s very hard to understand who will become victim to what based on their ideas of “truth.” Basically, it’s all about where one finds their sense of “identification.” So, for me, I follow anything I identify with, I gain inspiration from anything I question. Books included. Lots and lots of books.

And I’m a curious and eclectic person. So it’s hard for me to single out any form of expression that doesn’t make it into my work at one point or another. Just by virtue of attending to music, film, visual art, nature, science, people, etc. all of those influences make their way into my subconscious and work their way out through poetry, whether I’m aware of it or not. So a reference to Billy Wilder can coexist in an objectivist poem happily alongside quantum mechanics and a few observations on the beginnings of love between two people sitting at a café table over a single cup of espresso, just like an Edward Hopper painting described by Tom Waits—because all of these coexist happily, side by side, within me, all the time.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
This could be the shortest and most boring answer to a serious question, ever. Everything. I’ve been around long enough now to have discerned that all the books I’ve ever read, and every song I’ve ever heard, and every movie I’ve ever seen, and every place I’ve ever been, and every person I’ve ever know all have some sort of impact on my writing. They all show up at one time or another as an influence in a poem—from listening to Buddy Holly on an AM radio in the top of an apple tree to my wife showing me the switchblade in her pocket on our first date. It’s all there. To single out one as integral would mean that another was excluded in some way from influence, and that seems both inaccurate and unfair. For example, if you asked me six years ago if I felt Gertrude Stein had influenced my writing, I would have said “no” without hesitation. Asked the same question today, I would say “yes” with even greater conviction. Now ask me how much my writing has changed. As a young reader, though, I had some revelatory moments, ranging from Cummings to Niedecker to Eliot to Rimbaud to Williams to HD to Loy to Joyce to Oppen to Barnes to… You get the picture. More recently I tend to get blown away by contemporary writers, especially my collaborator. There are poets out there who can send you straight to the computer to write your face off or make you feel like you’ll never be able to write again. Some do both. Elizabeth Robinson. Dan Beachy-Quick. Sasha Steensen. Hoa Nguyen. James Belflower. Joshua Marie Wilkinson. Andrew Zawacki. Dorothea Lasky. Mathias Svalina. Michelle Taransky. Joe Hall. Eric Baus. I could go on and on… And all of my friends not listed above, who are nearly all writers of one stripe or another. It would be impossible for me to do what I do without them. Outside of work I love a good novel. Or maybe that’s important for my work, too. Outside. Or vice versa.

I see my best influences coming from books that I set down after reading and think: I want my readers to feel like I do right now. All of the poets listed above are great examples. I also love Laura Moriarty’s work. I adore Paul Vangelisti’s work, as not only a writer, but as a publisher, translator and editor. I’m equally impressed with his work ethic, or his ability to consistently contribute to poetry.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Speaking in terms of writing: I would love to do a writing residency somewhere. I work at one: the Left Bank Writers Retreat in Paris, France, but I’ve never taken the time to experience one for myself. I’d also like to try my hand at a writing a memoir, or as close as I could get to one of those. Speaking in terms of life: be a mom (maybe), learn how to cook (kind of), and taste every Malbec Argentina has to offer (definitely). Additionally, I’d like to keep traveling and see the world while the world’s still there to be seen. I’d like to write a poem about Shanghai at the foot of a mountain in Patagonia. And vice versa.

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?
After several abortive attempts at careers and way more education than I have a right to, I’ve finally found a vocation that encourages, challenges, batters, delights, and fulfills me as the odd human I am. I don’t like to mess with that by trying to better-deal it. Without writing, I’d probably still be a chef and spending a lot more time with knives and making highly elaborate descriptions of dishes on menus to entertain myself.

Or I might have ended up as a clown professor.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I was always writing, even at very young age. I thought I’d turn into some hot-shot journalist. Then I did, and ended up writing about $2,000 light bulbs, and other completely unnecessary luxury items. So, I shifted my attention to the more creative sphere. I took a major chance. It worked. I figured out that I really wanted to contribute to something more than (what I felt was like was) advertising.

But also, for me the easy answer to questions like these is always that I love to read, or I love to eat, or I love to learn. If you value something deeply, it’s not much of a stretch to want to bring more of it into the world. Thus, people become writers, chefs, and teachers.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
One of my best and oldest friends happens to be both a film critic and a manager at a local theater. He has a lot of freedom with its creative programming. One result of said freedom is that I found myself alone with this friend in a giant theater one morning a few weeks ago, eagerly anticipating a private screening of Near Dark on 35mm. Near Dark is Kathryn Bigelow’s second feature-length film, possibly the coolest movie ever made about Cramps-listening, Winnebago-driving vampires in Oklahoma, and also it’s a film that both my friend and I had basically worn out on VHS back in high school, but had never gotten to see in the theater. It was a little bit of magic that took 27 years and a lot of water under the bridge to deliver. In contrast, good books seem to come along all the time—which is one of the best perks of being a writer and a social human. Namely, you get to hear about a lot of good books, a lot of which are by friends. Some aren’t. I recently read Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, which was quite personally meaningful but not a book I would necessarily qualify as “great” in any objective sense. However, it did lead me to one of his earlier novels, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, which is bizarre and lyrical in all the right ways, and therefore great. I can’t claim Haruki as a friend, but I think I would like him. On the other hand, as far as poetry is concerned, my friend Mathias Svalina’s new book, Wastoid, has been traveling everywhere with me. It’s not alone—

Jack Spicer’s My Vocabulary Did This To Me is always my last book, I’ve read it countless times, and I pick it up every time I’m looking to do something new, or hoping to find a different direction for my work, or my head, or both. Even if I have it somewhat memorized at this point, there’s always something I can find that will blow my mind. And I don’t really watch films, or TV, or go the theater, simply because I spend enough time sitting still, typing on my computer, so I am N/A in the “film” part of this answer. However, I have seen so many wonderful art exhibits and exhibitions lately. Those feel a bit like films to me; walking around the Musee D’Orsay surrounded by rare Van Gogh paintings; my imagination makes that experience a screenplay in itself.

20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m in the process of condensing a new poetry manuscript called (tentatively) The Lavender Conversations, or The Human Condition, or The Blood Sport—it’s had about four hundred different titles. It’s a book that’s taken a great deal of re-writing and re-working, and thankfully, there’s not a huge rush to throw it together. Personally, I could hole-up and write my life away in a dark room forever, but that’s bizarre. So, I try to give my work time and room to breathe. There are always other projects; we’re working on a sequel to After the Fox. I’m piecing together interviews with contemporary writers. I want to start a new press. The “process” never ends.

Or it does. But it ends and starts again with a frequency great enough to provide the illusion of continuity, like the flickering of a film. Poems and manuscripts go by, one after another, day by day:  After the Fox, The Sublimation of Frederick Eckert, Tender, Dangerous Things to Please a Girl, 28 Child Size Life Jackets, These Dreams Were Nests for Something Time Dragged Away, Selected Perspectives on Drowning. Flash. Flash. Flash.

Poems go by at 24 frames per second and eventually become the visual flow of a life’s work. Hopefully.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Jamie Reid (April 10, 1941 - June 25, 2015)

Sad news from Vancouver: poet and activist Jamie Reid has died. As his wife wrote via his facebook page on Saturday (where this photo was borrowed):
Dear Friends

Our beloved Jamie died suddenly on Thursday afternoon, June 25, at home in Vancouver. You should know that his last day was filled with happiness and healing energy, and he was vibrant. The family will be saying goodbye on Wednesday at a private ceremony at the Boal Chapel near Capilano University. A public celebration and memorial will be organized soon where we can all get together to share our love and respect. In the meantime, know that we are managing with the support of close friends and relatives, and are filled with love for him.

Regards to you all, Carol
As much as he was a senior poet in the Canadian writing community, co-founder of TISH and general (positive) rabble-rouser for poetry and poetics, he was also quite generous towards younger poets, such as through his involvement in the occasional journal TADS. He was also instrumental in bringing John Newlove back to Vancouver in the late 1990s for what was not only his first Vancouver reading in more than a decade and a half, but his final Vancouver reading. His energy and generosity will be missed.

For more information on Jamie Reid, check out his ABC Bookworld page here, or this 2014 piece on him by Joanne Arnott. His Mad Boys is still online as part of the Coach House Books archive, his I, Another, The Space Between: Selected Poems is still available from Talonbooks, and his literary archive is housed at Simon Fraser University.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Barbara Henning, A Day Like Today


Instead of meditating, I mop
the floors and hallways.
To prevent downloading free
music, Dutch cable companies
obtain a court order to block
access to the pirate bay.
In fancy gyms across the city,
people steal from each other,
yuppie-on-yuppie crime
while musicians and night
workers seek the quiet dim
of dark apartments. At sunset,
I switch on the parking lights
and run upstairs to pee,
hoping the police won’t
notice. Then I circle around
block after block, finally
finding a tiny spot between
B and C, in front of the yuppie
building with a doorman,
a doorman’s sole purpose,
so they say, to provide security.

In the acknowledgments of New York poet Barbara Henning’s newest collection, A Day Like Today (Mobile AL: Negative Capability Press, 2015), the first real experience I’ve had with her writing, she writes that “These poems were composed from daily one page journal entries written in 2012. Many thanks to the New York Times writers (2012) for words and phrases collaged into the poems.” Henning’s compositional method has created a collection of densely-packed daybook-collage lyric capsules, managing to contain an incredible amount of information down the length of each page, as well as a great deal of breathable space between each line (which allow her poems not to collapse beneath their own weight). Bouncing from point to point to point, the shape and the tenor of her poems is reminiscent of the cadence of a number of poems by Cobourg, Ontario poet Stuart Ross, sans his trademark surrealism, as she allows the poems to end up far from the beginning, but still managing a somehow-coherent thread despite the tangents and leaps. Constructed in five sections—“Winter,” “Spring,” “Summer,” “Fall” and back to “Winter”—Henning’s poetic diary reads, in parts, as arbitrary as Gil McElroy’s ongoing “Julian Days” sequence; less interested in temporally placing the poems per se than allowing the random elements of her source material during those periods direct a certain degree of each poem’s movements. One might ask, are the section-headers meant to add or distract, or have they no purpose at all but as reportage itself, letting the reader know in which season each poem began? And yet, other poems do read as reports on specific activity, whether writing that “In the graveled garden / behind Unnameable Books / Patricia Spears Jones / is reading her poems.” (“UNNAMEABLE”), or that “I met Lewis for lunch / at Angelica’s. We eat wee / dragon bowls with mu tea. / Then I bike over to Santo’s / in the rain to make copies / of my poetic prose book.” (“I MEET LEWIS / FOR LUNCH”).


Mr. Zlobin writes a book
about Americans and how we
interrogate complete strangers.
Two men interrogate a woman,
one in gentle, soothing tones,
while the other fires staccato
bursts of accusatory questions.
Her husband is reading a magazine
called Wired when she repeats
her question. He snarls and
commands that she be still.
To issue spoken commands
on most Androids, you must
tap the microphone gently.
In Russia, children are raised
by their grandmothers.
An average mother would never
dream of leaving her child
with a teenager. She says
it seems as if he doesn’t care
about her. He stands up
in a wild sea storm in the Gulf
of Alaska, where a Shell Oil
drilling rig runs aground
with 139,000 gallons
of diesel fuel. The unified
command will be monitoring
the situation. It’s midnight
with fireworks when he walks
out while his wife is pleading
with him to stay. Frankenstein’s
monster on occasion turns
out to be rather sweet.

Friday, June 26, 2015

today is my father's seventy-fourth birthday,

A Christmas somewhere in the early 1970s, 1293 Ridgemont (Ottawa).

Thursday, June 25, 2015

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Cassidy McFadzean’s

Cassidy McFadzean’s poems have appeared in magazines across Canada including The Malahat Review, Grain, Arc, Vallum, and The Fiddlehead. In 2012 she published a chapbook, Farwell with JackPine Press and in 2013 she was a finalist for the CBC Poetry Prize and the Walrus Poetry Prize. She was born in Regina and studied at the University of Regina and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Hacker Packer (McClelland & Stewart, 2015) is her first collection of poems.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
So much of writing is slow, solitary work. Thinking of my book as an object in the world has given me the feeling that that this thing I do everyday can exist as something visible too. I haven’t been at it long enough to really compare my older poems with newer stuff, and I think I’m working through a lot of the same ideas. I might be getting a bit more comfortable writing about my own life, which I really resisted at first.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I’m drawn to the effects of compression and sound, which I’ve found can be accessed most immediately in poetry. I like short fiction for its similar formal intensity, but my attention, so far, feels most charged when writing a poem.

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’ve experienced the occasional line entering my mind and a poem feeling intact after the first draft but it’s rare. Revision is when I feel most like I’m writing. I love the feeling of reworking a line, and returning to it again and again. That’s when most writing happens for me.

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?
Usually, I begin with something rooted in the world. A painting or sculpture, a voice or feeling I can’t work out. I don’t start thinking about a book until I have enough poems to start cutting.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I enjoy reading my work aloud, though I get almost giddy with nervousness and anxiety beforehand. I’ve found that reading work-in-progress to an audience can be an excellent catalyst for revision, especially at the line level. 

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?
When I’m working on a poem, my attention is focused on formal and aesthetic concerns, and I think for the poem to be successful for me, it has to be. It’s my hope that the theoretical questions that enter my poems— from questions of gender roles and class to ideas of mortality and metaphysics— will emerge from the personas, images, and sounds I invoke and not the other way around. I prefer approaching these ideas from a sideways glance, rather than head-on, but maybe that will change in the future.

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 most admire artists whose primary role is an artistic one. I find myself reading more closely the work of writers such as Alice Munro and Karen Solie who do not have a huge public presence outside of their work. What I gain from their writings are things like how we should live our lives, and what the role of art might be. I guess everything I feel is worth saying I want to put in my poems.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Editors are the best oracles—they reveal my darkest fears about a piece, those things I didn’t want to admit to myself but know I must change.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I’ve been thinking a lot about lines lately. One of my Iowa instructors talks about thinking in terms of the line, rather than line breaks. This has been helpful for me to consider, especially when most poets are no longer using meter to measure the line. I tend to follow my instincts, but if I read a line aloud differently from how it appears on the page, I feel suspicious of myself. Lucie Brock-Broido’s Stay, Illusion and Anthony Madrid’s I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say are two books where the lines feel finely crafted in terms of both rhythm and idea. 

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’m finishing up my MFA, so I try to spend most of the day writing. I’m less distracted in the morning before I’ve had coffee and am still half-asleep. In the afternoon, I read, go to class, or teach.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Reading is the obvious place, but the biggest one. There’s so much that others are doing with language that’s exciting. Kerry-Lee Powell’s Inheritance and Stevie’s Howell’s [Sharps] are two collections that make me to want to do more in my own work.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
My favourite smell is ozone, which always makes me think of my earth-home. On a smaller scale, I love the smell of lilacs growing around my parents’ house in North Central Regina.

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?
The visual arts are a huge part of my writing. I’ve written ekphrastic poems about The Unicorn Tapestries at Cluny, and at the Cloisters in New York. I’ve also written about Rodin’s sculptures, Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, and the drawings of Canadian artist Shuvinai Ashoona. My father and brothers are visual artists, so maybe that’s where my interest stems from. 

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Most recently: Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Rilke’s Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus, Jeramy Dodds, Thomas James, Amanda Jernigan, Mary Szybist, Emily Dickinson. Living in the US has introduced me to poets like Ariana Reines, Dorothea Lasky, and Heather Christle.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d like to see more of the world. I’d like to return to places like Greece and Italy, but I’d also like to see the Maritimes and Canadian territories. I want to make time to work at my fiction and hopefully start publishing it. 

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?

It would be nice to do something that doesn’t involve sitting at a desk. I went through a phase of wanting to be a stonemason, but totally romanticizing it. Maybe I was reading too much Old English poetry at the time.

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I think growing up surrounded by books gave me the feeling that such a life was possible. I always wanted to write. I stuttered from a young age and still do a bit, the kind where not only do the words not come out, but it feels like you’re drowning on air. I found it was easier to stay quiet, and from the age of 12-18 I kept a daily journal and read as many books as I could get my hands on. I found that in my writing, I could express things exactly the way I wanted to, the way I heard them in my head. People often talk about writing giving them a voice, but maybe my speechlessness gave me poetry.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Ben Lerner’s 10:04 and Interstellar, which are both kind of about time travel.

19 - What are you currently working on?
My second collection of poems, Drolleries, which takes its name from the marginalia of animal-human hybrids doodled in medieval manuscripts. I’m also working at finishing my MFA and moving back to Canada.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Stuart Ross, A Hamburger in a Gallery


This is a political poem.
Shortly I will allude
to some political things.
Not yet, though.
First: a one-winged bat
is dead on my sidewalk.
Then: the lake is crispy today.
Also: the man in the wizard gown
drove by in a Honda.
Now for the political part.
Right after I get some Triscuits.
I like them with soy cheese
and avocado. Everything
is political. “Even that piece
of chewed gum on the ground
with pebbles stuck in it?” Yes,
even that piece of chewed gum.
“So when you were saying
you were going to allude to
something political, that
was a trick, you were already
doing it.” Eat the rich.

Cobourg, Ontario writer, editor, publisher and blogger Stuart Ross has been enormously productive, with chapbooks produced by numerous presses including Room 3O2 Books, The Front Press, Apt. 9 Press, Silver Birch Press, Pink Dog Press and his own Proper Tales Press (launched 36 years ago), as well as three that were released last year: Nice Haircut, Fiddlehead (Puddles of Sky Press), A Pretty Good Year (Nose in Book Publishing) and In In My Dream (BookThug). The author of more than fifteen books of fiction, poetry and essays, he’s already published two more this spring: Further Confessions of a Small Press Racketeer (Vancouver BC: Anvil Press, 2015) and A Hamburger in a Gallery (Montreal QC: DC Books, 2015). A Hamburger in a Gallery , listed as his “ninth [trade] collection of poems” (a full Stuart Ross bibliography would be interesting to see, someday), is a collection of more than one hundred pages of shorter lyrics and lyric sequences, and even include a small handful of his ongoing ‘one-line’ poems (he is also, among other things, editor/publisher of Peter O’Toole, a journal of one-line poems) that explore elements of the mundane, personal and immediate. Ross’ poetics shift from the surreal to the straightforward, from the concrete to the downright meditative and philosophical, as well as through a strange humour, self-aware and even ironic sadness, and sense of deep loss that permeate much of the collection. “I stagger in my living room,” he writes, to open the poem “IN A FOREST OF WHISPERS,” “wedged between the piano keys / You could go cryogenic / outside your own borders [.]” Some of his political references through the collection also provide interesting counterpoints and connections back throughout the length and breadth of his work, from the anthology he co-edited with Stephen Brockwell, Rogue Stimulus: The Stephen Harper Holiday Anthology for a Prorogued Parliament (Toronto ON: Mansfield Press, 2010), his infamous poem quoting Prime Minister of Canada, Jean Chretien, “A Minor Altercation,” included in his book The Inspiration Cha-Cha (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 1996), to references in earlier poems on wars in El Salvador. As he writes to open the poem “POEM DURING A TALK BY CARLA HARRYMAN”: “We are not happy / until we are almost / noise. To make noise, / the Viet Nam war / is focused on / improvisation, mingled / with kind notes / and protective armour.”


I have invented a new dental floss
that makes you depressed.
It will be a good seller, Dad.

Every time a car goes by my window,
my dog reads another George Eliot novel.
I will buy her a new bookmark.

Let’s move on to the issue of “size.”
The latest issue of Vogue
is bigger than the town I live in.

Mark Laba once lived a block away
and I thought that was far.
Now he lives in Vancouver.

I worry that the dog is bored.
I train her to ride a tricycle
and invent a dental floss for dogs.

Have I won
the Nobel Prize
for Literature yet?

At the end of the collection is a forty-page interview conducted with Ross by DC Books poetry editor Jason Camlot, who deliberately composed a series of “stupid questions” that Ross was meant to answer seriously. It’s a strange, and rather lengthy, read, but occasionally provides some interesting insight into Ross’ work and method. Part of the interview includes:

JC: Can you control your poems?
SR: I can control the words and where the lines break, but I can’t control how someone reads it.
JC: Can you control how you read it?
SR: No, sometimes I write a poem and I look at it a lot later and suddenly I see a lot of things I didn’t think were there before. So I don’t think I control it.
JC: How much control do you have?
SR: Of my poems?
JC: Okay.
SR: I choose the words, the lines, the sentences, the breaks. But the poem has its own life. That sounds cliché, but when you write the poem it might have some effect on you and others, and a year later it might have a completely different effect on you and different people. So, I would say I don’t have a lot of control over my poems.