Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Rebecca Wolff, One Morning—.

One thing I’m not doing in my poems: reporting
on anything that really happened.

When I say I’m from New York, Glaswegians say, “Oh, I love Woody Allen.” They cannot construe how large a state can be. I just happen to actually be from Manhattan. (“The Ungovernable”)

Albany, New York poet, editor and publisher Rebecca Wolff’s fourth poetry collection is One Morning—. (Wave Books, 2015), following her collections Manderley (University of Illinois Press, 2001), Figment (W.W. Norton, 2004) and The King (W.W. Norton, 2009). There seems something more open, and less constrained, in the poems of this collection—something to do with the breath—compared to the poems in her prior collection, a collection of poems on becoming and being a mother. Perhaps “constrained” isn’t the right word—but there is certainly something about the poems in this collection that is more open somehow, in the movement of line and breath. There is something less formal and more conversational, yet no less meticulously formed. As the poem “Palisades” opens: “Interred in region // nothing super global in this locale // where I live, where I / bought – // what would I tell you about it if I could?”

Structured in six untitled sections, the poems in One Morning—. are engaged with structures and politics, and governing bodies and power (both real and perceived), delighting in odd flashes of wry humour combined with a lack of patience for nonsense. Her poems sever and subvert, shift and carve through the lyric without missing a beat or a step, composed without a wasted word or gesture. As she writes in the poem “Fronting”: “And I trust people // to make good choices / so I don’t have to impale them // on the tines of my pitchfork.”

Irony is the salt of life
(I’d trade it in for gold)

Portaging takes a lot of time
and that’s how we are made

A morning’s worth of contretemps
Japan has bigger tides

In sharing one finds extra peace
and this is what I’ll say:

“Oh, boil the cabbage down, girls”
I’m on my way to work

At work I’ll find my head’s in use
More mountainsides en route

In view the smallest leaf, you know
measured by a glyph

your daughter’s face
my daughter’s face

I really mean my daughter’s face.

At one hundred and forty pages, One Morning—. has considerable weight, and the poems are incredibly sharp. There is something curious about the way Wolff utilizes “confession,” such as the poem/section “The Curious Life / and Mysterious Death / of Peter J. Perry.” She utilizes personal information to explore a series of interrogations, and even acknowledgments, to incredible degree, even as the fact of the information being factual as hers, or anyone elses (there is the suggestion that the narrator is related to Peter J. Perry, for example), becoming entirely beside the point. Her poems confess, and yet, remain private; what she gives away is far more valuable and far less tangible to track than whether or not a particular morsel of information really happened, and in the ways in which she informs. She is pointedly skilled at knowing exactly how and what to impart, and the reasons why, allowing her poems an intimacy that is deeply felt, without the distraction of the extraneous.

feeling it at the gas pump
fumes unchained

– I will report you –

squad car drove up
my tailpipe

called my friend

to see what he could do for us. (“Mad as Hell/Not Going to Take It”)

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Sasha Steensen

Sasha Steensen is the author of four books of poetry, most recently House of Deer (Fence Books), and Gatherest, forthcoming from Ahsahta Press. She lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, where she tends chickens, goats, bees, and children. Steensen serves as a poetry editor for Colorado Review and teaches Creative Writing and Literature at Colorado State University.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
At the time my first book (A Magic Book, Fence Books) was published, I was finishing up a PhD in the Poetics Program and I wasn’t sure what I would do or where I would go next.  My husband and I thought we might travel for a few years or move to New York City or become gardeners and yoga teachers.  But, with the book in hand, I ended up with a job at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. This is a town that welcomes a bit of amateur homesteading, and while I moved here with just my husband and a dog, I now have two daughters, three goats, 12 chickens, and the occasional hive of bees.  In some ways, I think it is safe to say that the book made a path for me that I had not anticipated.

I wrote A Magic Book while preparing for my oral exams, and it was really a way for me to process the material I was reading.  My first two books are probably more heavily researched, more concerned with a particular moment (A Magic Book—19th century American magicians and the second Iraq war) or movement (The Method—the migrations of a manuscript written by Archimedes).  Newer work (including House of Deer, also from Fence and Gatherest, which is forthcoming from Ahsahta Press) tends to find its way into more personal topics, more domestic spaces.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I actually wrote in all three genres when I was young, but the playfulness of poetry always appealed to me, and again, perhaps luck has a bit to do with it. While I was finishing up my BA in History,  I took a poetry workshop with the poet Claudia Keelan.  I had planned to go on to do an MA in American Studies, but Claudia insisted I could study history and write poems.  She introduced me to Susan Howe’s work, and the following fall, I was one of two poets who enrolled in the newly formed MFA program at UNLV.  

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?
It depends on the writing project, of course. I have noticed that I seem to average a book of poems every two to three years or so.  With poems, I usually write about twice as many pages as I keep, and then there would also be a good deal of notes.   I just wrote a long essay (“Openings:  Into Our Vertical Cosmos,” forthcoming from Essay Press) that took me about three months, and again, the notes are much longer than the finished piece.

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? 
Rebecca Wolff once asked me if I ever just write a poem, and that’s when I realized that, in most cases, I start by working on a book and not on a discrete poem.  But that has begun to shift a bit.  While I am still working on serial poems, I don’t always have such a clear sense of what the larger book will look like until I have written several series.  Series merge and books emerge.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love giving readings, especially when I get the chance to read with other writers whose work I admire. This has something to do with the fact that I don’t live in an urban setting, so if I am giving a reading, I am often traveling and talking to poets, something that tends to be very generative for me. And, sometimes I sing poems, sometimes I chant.  I can’t do these things on the page in the same way.  Performing poems feels a bit like re-embodying them.

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?
In some ways, the current questions are the same questions I’ve always asked, though the particulars are constantly shifting.  I have always wondered what it means to be intimate with another human, to be in communion.  Questions about the role language plays in our interpersonal relationships are endlessly fascinating to me.  When I consider  the ways in which this country suffers from deep-seated racism and violence, I think perhaps our failure to truly commune is at the heart of so many of our problems.  Without the ability to connect, we bankrupt ourselves in so many ways—spiritually, ecologically, culturally and personally.  What role does language play in creating or overcoming this bankruptcy? That is a question that keeps surfacing for me, though in different contexts.

I’ve written a good deal about addiction (especially in House of Deer) because I come from a family that has suffered from various kinds of addiction, and again, this question of communion is related. I recently read about a study in which rats were offered two kinds of water—untreated water and water laced with cocaine. The rats that had both cage mates and meaningful work (which, for rats, means play) rejected the cocaine-laced water in favor of the untreated water. When I read the article, I realized that despite all the thinking and writing I had done about addiction, I didn’t fully explore the ways in which a simple connection with another creature might serve as the most powerful antidote to drug addiction.

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 don’t think the writer serves one roll, and in fact, I’d probably be more inclined to say that each poem, as opposed to each poet, serves a function in the larger culture that we cannot do without. Some poems renew words by using them in unexpected or disarming ways, while other poems reproduce language, often to expose the ways language can be used to manipulate or placate us.  Sometimes poems do both at the same time, and there are countless other functions a poem can serve.  And then there are poems whose beauty moves me, and this is just as important, in my mind, as, say, the overtly political poem. 

8- Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
So far, I’d say working with editors has been fruitful and pleasant. I have nothing but good experiences with editors.  Hopefully that will continue!

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
In terms of the writing life, read more than you write. 

In terms of the larger life (which includes the writing life, of course), I hesitate to admit that the best piece of advice comes in the form of a cliché, and it isn’t so much advice as prophecy.  He who worries before it is necessary worries more than necessary.  Whenever I find I am fearful or reluctant to do something because of some potentially disastrous outcome, this phrase comes to mind and I immediately remember a dozen or so instances in which I worried for no good reason.  Then, the worry dissipates.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I gave up writing prose (with the exception of a few short essays here and there) after I had my first daughter, and I have only just returned to writing longer essays now that my second daughter is in kindergarten.  I didn’t have the mental space I needed to write essays until my children were in school full time.  At the moment, I am at work on essays and poems, more or less equally, and I tend to go back and forth without much effort.

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? 
The first thing I do every day is milk a goat.  I don’t write until my children are out of the house, and many days, I have to teach or I have meetings until they are out of school.  So, writing happens once or twice a week, on the days I don’t teach.  I do take notes off and on throughout the week, and occasionally, in the evening, I will sit down and work on something already in process.  But for the most part, I need a few hours ahead of me, preferably earlier in the day as opposed to later, to get a good amount of writing done.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
The first and best answer is reading.  But usually re-reading.  When I am stuck, I tend to return to books that I admire.  I’ve read Woolf’s The Waves over a dozen times because I adore it.  I have always found that, in addition to writing, I need tactile work as well, so if I can’t write, I will often sew, knit, embroider, work in the garden, preserve food, cook, etc.

If I am in the middle of a project, or if I am in the process of trying to put a book together, I lean heavily on my husband.  He studied poetry very seriously, but then he made a career change and went to law school.  Talking to him is always very helpful for me because while he understands what I am working on, he has a completely different perspective on the questions I am asking.  He often shows me new ways into the problems I want to address, and new ways out as well.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
My childhood home: bread.

My current home: Creek water. In the entryway of my house, there’s always a collection of buckets that serve as temporary homes for the crawdads, tadpoles and minnows my daughter catches in the canal that runs through our property. 

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?
Visual art has always been hugely important to me.  But now that I live out a ways, I turn more to the natural world and the domestic spaces where I spend most of my time.  Animals, children, meditation and prayer are places I tend to find material.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work? 
I like the idea of answering this question in terms of writers I know—actual people.  Of course, I could offer a long list of writers, living and dead, that I read and re-read, but it is wonderful to realize that some of those individuals on that list are people I see or correspond with regularly.   I have amazing colleagues who are also friends—Dan Beachy-Quick and Matthew Cooperman.  I am in regular contact with them not just because we work at the same institution, but because we read each other’s work, and take care of each other’s kids, and have dinner at each other’s houses.  Other poets (some of who also live nearby) whose work and whose person are crucial for me:  Julie Carr, Laynie Browne, Martin Corless-Smith, Aby Kaupang, Cathy Wagner, Claudia Keelan, and so many more.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Walk or ride my bike some great distance—across the US, through South America, around Southeast Asia. Or even just complete a century (100 miles on the bike).  I have ridden as far as 83 miles, so adding another 17 doesn’t seem too out of reach.

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?
Growing up, I wanted to be a pilot, but now I sometimes wish I had become a visual artist. I think I am guilty of romanticizing the artist studio.  My husband and I use to fantasize about becoming travel writers for one of the budget travel guide companies.  I’d still seriously consider leaving my academic job to write for Lonely Planet’s traveling with children series. 

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
My mother says I always wrote.  Even before I could actually write words, I would dictate stories or poems and she would write them down.  But, I think encouragement had a lot to do with it.  Over the years, teachers took an interest in my writing, and gave me a sense that the writing life was a real possibility. 

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts just arrived in the mail yesterday and I stayed up way too late reading that last night.  Even though I haven’t yet finished it, I am very moved by the ways in which she talks about transformation—of the body, of the family unit, of language, etc.  I have also been devouring Karl OveKnausgaard’s Min Kamp books.  My feelings about those books are so conflicted, and not for the reasons that some have cited (the title, the exposure of his loved ones). I am completely enamored with the ways in which the domestic landscape and the landscape of the mind meet and overlap.  The conflict comes, I guess, when I think about all the women writers who have been doing similar work, in very different ways of course, but who have not yet received anywhere near the same kind of recognition. Take, for example, Bernadette Mayer who wrote her stunning Midwinter Day with her children present.  American poets know and admire her, but I don’t think her work has had the audience it deserves.  It could simply be the genre, but I do wonder if it has something to do with the interest we take in a man writing about the domestic.

Tangerines:  A film about two men who stay behind to tend their land during the war in Abkhazia.  Interestingly, this film features an absent woman too—the only woman in the film—who appears in a photograph and in conversation at a few crucial moments. 

20 - What are you currently working on?
Speaking of the domestic life interfering with the writing life, for the first time since my first child was born (9 years ago!!!), I have many projects in the works.  When my children were still very young and not in school, I seemed only able to work on one thing at a time. 

I have just finished a few essays that are both personal essays and philosophical / etymological / historical meanderings on various topics. Going back to my earlier discussion about communion, the essays seem to be trying to figure out the ways in which affect determines our interactions with one another.  For example, one of these essays deals with the experience of familiarity—how we know one another, how we recognize ourselves and each other as distinct creatures who are also defined in relationship.  I have just started a third essay, on embarrassment. 

I recently finished a book of poems entitled Gatherest that will be published by Ahsahta Press in 2017, and now I am at work on two additional poetry projects that may or may not merge.  The first I am calling Hendes because the poems take their inspiration from Catullus’s Hendecasyllabic poems.  Catullus’s form really can’t be translated into English because his meter depends on a series of long, short, and variable syllables.  My adaption is a series of 11 line poems, each line consisting of approximately 11 syllables.  Just as Catullus’s Hendecasyllabic poems start with a “sparrow, my girl’s pleasure,” my series begin with birds (chickens) and girls (my daughters) and pleasures (sex and food and affection).  There are other contextual connections throughout, and my poems tend to meander toward and away from Catullus again and again as the series proceeds.

The second project is a rewriting of the history of the region where I live, and here I am trying to be as local as possible.  I live on a little street off of a road called Overland Trail.  The road gets its name from the fact that it was once the trail many of the pioneers took west during the 1800s.  These prose poems utilize borrowed language from narratives and letters, particularly by women and girls, who were either on the wagons passing by the land where I now live or who stayed to settle it.  But the poems are also concerned with contemporary daily and domestic life.  I am interested in the convergence of notions of the land as something to settle, to cross over, to steal (from Native Americans), to take ownership of, and the land as a place we now inhabit without much thought.  In these poems, the sense of the land as a stage upon which daily life is performed becomes subject to this older version of the land as something much more dynamic and volatile.

Monday, September 28, 2015

12 or 20 (small press) questions with Maureen Scott Harris on Fieldnotes/MSH

I think of Fieldnotes/MSH as an imprint rather than a press, and myself as an amateur (in the root sense of that word) working on the margins of the small press world. Under this imprint I publish (erratically) occasional broadsides and chapbooks. The broadsides (so far) are my own poems and I circulate them to friends and colleagues to celebrate National Poetry Month. The chapbooks are prose, texts I’ve come across one way or another that I feel deserve an audience. Fieldnotes operates pretty much within the gift economy—chapbook authors get 10% of the print run. I try to recoup design and printing costs. If I do better than that the money goes towards the next publication. 

Canadian poet and essayist Maureen Scott Harris was born in Prince Rupert (BC), grew up in Winnipeg (MB) and lives in Toronto (ON). She has published three collections of poetry: A Possible Landscape (Brick Books, 1993), Drowning Lessons (Pedlar Press, 2004) awarded the 2005 Trillium Book Award for Poetry, and Slow Curve Out (Pedlar Press, 2012), shortlisted for the League of Canadian Poets’ Pat Lowther Award. Harris’s essays have won the Prairie Fire Creative Nonfiction Prize, and the WildCare Tasmania Nature Writing Prize, which included a residency in Tasmania at Lake St. Clair. In 2012-2013 she was Artist-in-Residence at the Koffler Scientific Reserve at Jokers Hill, north of Toronto. With other poets and environmentalists she is currently plotting poetry walks that follow the (sometimes buried) rivers and streams of Toronto. Fieldnotes/MSH is her own enterprise.

1 – When did Fieldnotes/MSH first start? How have your original goals as a publisher shifted since you started, if at all? And what have you learned through the process?
Fieldnotes began in January 2002 when I decided I wanted to publish a broadside of my poem “The Drowned Boy.” For some time I’d wanted to do something to mark National Poetry Month. I bought a big rubber stamp that says ‘National Poetry Month,’ stamped envelopes with it, and sent the broadside out to friends and colleagues. My initial intention was to publish a broadside every year for poetry month, but I only managed to keep it going for another year.

Then in 2010 I heard Pedlar Press publisher Beth Follett speak in the Hart House Library (University of Toronto) about the future of the printed book and its readers. Beth is always eloquent. The audience was excited and inspired by what she had to say, but it wasn’t large. It seemed to me—and several others—that her talk should be published. I thought about it for a few days, and decided I could publish it as a Fieldnotes Chapbook.

I had no immediate intention of publishing anything more. But when Beth’s YesNo appeared and was launched people began to ask me what I’d publish next. I didn’t want to invest a lot of time in publishing and I don’t have a lot of money for it either, but I decided I would consider occasional publications, guided by my own responses to what I happened upon. I’m interested in talks and lectures, things that might disappear beyond their occasion. I’m also mainly interested in prose. 

That said, the second Fieldnotes Chapbook was in fact a collection of poems written in response to a sculpture exhibition by Susan Low-Beer. It appeared in 2013.  Fieldnotes came into that late in the game. With several other poets I’d been invited to view a series of Low-Beer’s sculptured heads and write something in response to them. The poems were assembled, edited, and the book designed when the group went looking for an ISBN. I was asked if it could appear as a Fieldnotes chapbook  and said yes.

Late in 2014 I read an unpublished essay by Kelley Aitken about the Penone sculpture that once graced the Galeria Italia at the AGO. I’ve mourned that work’s disappearance, so I decided to publish the essay. It launched in January 2015. I’m now working on the next chapbook, Stan Dragland’s Page Lecture (delivered at Queen’s University about a year ago) on the poetry and prose of Joanne Page.

Last April I revived my poetry month broadside and I expect to publish another one in 2016. I’ve learned that it takes time and energy to publish, but it’s also satisfying. I expect Fieldnotes will publish erratically in the future as it has in the past. And it will continue, if it does, as I come across material that I think deserves an audience.

2 – What first brought you to publishing?
I’ve been interested in small press publishing since the late 1960s when I was in what we then called library school. My favourite course, taught by Douglas Lochhead, was the history of books and printing. During it we pulled some prints on the Massey College presses. I also did a project on little magazines and literary ephemera for my humanities materials course. From a library standpoint such publications are hard to learn about and to collect; there was a growing interest in them that paralleled the growing interest in Canadian writing.

Much later, and for about 10 years, I worked at Robarts Library as the CIP librarian, doing the catalogue copy for forthcoming books; through that job I met many people in publishing. Then I worked for Brick Books as production manager for several years. Working for them I learned how small publishing unfolds and, given computers, it seemed pretty easy to make a broadside.  

3 – What do you consider the role and responsibilities, if any, of small publishing?
I think each small press must determine its own role and responsibilities. That said, I think the responsibilities fall in two directions: to the writer and to the reader. I want to produce chapbooks that embody or hold their texts appropriately and as beautifully as possible, in tribute to the work that goes into writing them—and I also want to extend the life of what might otherwise not be seen or heard.

4 – What do you see your press doing that no one else is?
Hmmm—perhaps rejoicing solely in the serendipitous.

5 – What do you see as the most effective way to get new chapbooks out into the world?
In my experience the launch of a chapbook is the most effective form of distribution. I believe attendance at small press fairs is also good, but as an introvert I find an afternoon of crowds completely exhausting and so don’t participate regularly. Word of mouth. I don’t use social media because I don’t know how to use it effectively, and I don’t want to spend time on it. 

6 – How involved an editor are you? Do you dig deep into line edits, or do you prefer more of a light touch?
It depends on how much editing the work requires. I’ve done both light and more involved editing.

7 – How do your books get distributed? What are your usual print runs?
Mostly by the launch, some by mail. My chapbook print runs have been 100 copies—though the Page Lecture will be 200.

8 – How many other people are involved with editing or production? Do you work with other editors, and if so, how effective do you find it? What are the benefits, drawbacks?
So far I’ve worked directly only with authors and designers. I do the editing and copy-editing myself, though I sometimes consult with friends who have those skills. And of course I work with the printer.

9 – How has being an editor/publisher changed the way you think about your own writing?
It’s shown me that I don’t necessarily have to wait on anyone else to publish something that I want to see published.

10– How do you approach the idea of publishing your own writing? Some, such as Gary Geddes when he still ran Cormorant, refused such, yet various Coach House Press’ editors had titles during their tenures as editors for the press, including Victor Coleman and bpNichol. What do you think of the arguments for or against, or do you see the whole question as irrelevant?
Fieldnotes began as a vehicle to publish my own poems—though the poems I used for them had already appeared in journals. So I’m clearly not opposed to self-publishing. That said, I would in general prefer not to publish a chapbook of my own work, unless it was work that had been published elsewhere and so had the benefit of editing.

11– How do you see Fieldnotes evolving?
I don’t see it evolving beyond what it is.

12– What, as a publisher, are you most proud of accomplishing? What do you think people have overlooked about your publications? What is your biggest frustration?
I’m proud to have brought into a larger public arena some writing and thinking that might have stayed ephemeral or in the manuscript drawer.  As for frustrations—distribution is the historical issue for Canadian publishing. If there were more hours in the day and I were more social I might figure out a way to do this better. 

13– Who were your early publishing models when starting out?
Brick Books, with its attention to both editing and authors, offers a wonderful model for publishing, as does Pedlar Press.

14– How does Fieldnotes work to engage with your immediate literary community, and community at large? What journals or presses do you see Fieldnotes in dialogue with? How important do you see those dialogues, those conversations?
Fieldnotes is really a peripheral enterprise, not particularly in dialogue with anyone. Though I do like to talk to, for example, Carleton Wilson and Nicholas Power about the small press world.

15– Do you hold regular or occasional readings or launches? How important do you see public readings and other events?
I hold a launch for each chapbook, at which I invite the author to read or to speak about the project.

16– How do you utilize the internet, if at all, to further your goals?
I haven’t utilized it. At best I might post a note on my Facebook page.

17– Do you take submissions? If so, what aren’t you looking for?

18– Tell me about three of your most recent titles, and why they’re special.
Fieldnotes has only published 4 chapbooks, and of those, only 3 are ones I can claim. I’ve already described them above in my answer to the first question. But I’ll say something about the broadsides. I met Alan Siu of Sunville Printco Inc when I was working for Brick Books; he prints, and has designed, for them. Alan has done all my broadsides, and is currently designing the Page Lecture—he’s generous and a delight to work with.