Sunday, March 31, 2019

Fred Schmalz, Action in the Orchards


I would like to wander
amid the heavens’ explosions
a mountainous country’s
nomadic art immaterial
if learned by heart
you move all the time
taking nothing with you
to meet the poets
from Kandahar and Kabul
replace philosophy
condensed essentially
says most at highest speed
sensed before thought
sometimes in the evening
after a party you go
into something ephemeral
the road to the city
accompanying Jew’s harp
a strange attentiveness
reprograms us
to think through the thing
and by looking
deal thought
a blow for colors
as a means to say
what I can’t
otherwise thoughts form
the core of objects
those shoes are blue
impossible to discuss
which is where
I have always been
sensitive to the weather
as such
yesterday I barely left bed
my body crumpled organ by organ
this is my deformity
interspatial comet crossing
stints as sleeper and slept
weeper and wept over
clocks can be fixed
there is no easy way to maintain
interest in the eternal

From Chicago writer and artist Fred Schmalz comes the utterly charming full-length poetry debut, Action in the Orchards (New York NY: Nightboat Books, 2019), a collection of poems that very pointedly seeks to respond to the question of what artists of any kind should be doing (the answer, it would seem, is very simple: make art). Given the wealth of conversations and subjects poetry has been exploring a bit more lately, that answer might appear rather obvious, and yet, the question of what a poem can do, specifically, is one that is as old as writing itself. If, as Auden wrote, poetry makes nothing happen, perhaps the answer is entirely in emphasis: poetry makes nothing happen.

I like very much what the poems in this collection are doing. Schmalz’s halts and hesitations are composed with quiet confidence, rhythmically staggered and playful. “[T]his is the nature of invitation,” he writes, in the poem “POSTCARD FROM THE COUNTRYSIDE”: “it makes me feel / like a horse / in line for bread [.]” Or there is the poem “I AM A CAMERA,” a piece that feels entirely constructed out of singular phrases that may or may not connect, and in the end, accumulate, writing: “The look of the eyes is not love. / Nor is it a sixth sense. She remembered / my attention to conflict. I have a heart / defenseless by night. The hour came / and passed. Bravery did no good. / I supposed points of resemblance // were: pupil, curtain, light switch, / word play. An absolute dream / shocks. See you later.”

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Karen Solie, The Caiplie Caves

NO 59981 05825; 56.24324° N, 2.64731° W

Landward, the cave mouth conspicuously dark.
Halfway between Anstruther and Crail,
singular in the vicinity. Prominent
calcareous sandstone outcrop on a raised beach
level, short lengths of passage
and as spectacularly weathered as the coexistence
of good and evil, the earth pigments.

Anchor in five metres, taking care to avoid
the numerous creel markers. At half-tide
a dinghy may be hauled out where the reef buffers
flat rocks, though they are sharp
and landing delicate, if land you must.
Wind may complicate return to the boat. Any visit
is a lesson in how quickly conditions change.

What is immediately fascinating about Toronto poet and editor Karen Solie latest full-length collection, The Caiplie Caves (Toronto ON: Anansi, 2019), is how it is built: more than a collection thematically or structurally shaped, but a singular, book-length work constructed around a core idea. As the press release offers:

In the seventh century, on the coast of Fife, Scotland, an Irish missionary named Ethernan withdrew to a cave in order to decide whether to establish a priory on May Island, directly opposite, in the Firth of Forth, or pursue a hermit’s solitude. His decision would have been informed by the realities of war, religious colonization, and ideas of progress, power, and corruption, and complicated by personal interest, grief, confusion, and a faith (religious and secular) under extreme duress.

What becomes interesting about this shift is one of approach, as Solie evolves, more overtly, from a writer who crafts poems into collections into a writer who crafts a collection constructed out of individual poems; becoming, at least for this singular project, a poet utilizing the book as her unit of composition. That isn’t to suggest that her prior collections—Short Haul Engine (London ON: Brick Books, 2001), Modern and Normal (Brick Books, 2005), Pigeon (Anansi, 2009) and TheRoad In Is Not the Same Road Out (Anansi, 2015), as well as The Living Option: Selected Poems (Northumberland UK: Bloodaxe Books, 2013) [see my review of such here]—aren’t conceived as or don’t hold together as book-units, but the difference remains on The Caiplie Caves’’ focus on both a historical figure, the hermit Ethernan, and the remote Caves of Caiplie, where he chose to contemplate, situated north of Edinburgh along the country’s eastern coast. As Solie writes of the historically-evasive Ethernan as part of her preface: “A number suggest he was an Irish missionary to Scotland who withdrew to the Caves in the mid-7th century in order to decide whether to commit to a hermit’s solitude or establish a priory on May Island. This choice, between life as a ‘contemplative’ or as an ‘active,’ was not an unusual one to take up among his cohort.” The poems use the contemplation of that choice, between a contemplative versus an active life, as a way to speak both to what is believed to be Ethernan’s historical context as well as contemporary concerns, asking what, indeed, denotes activity, and examining the unexamined life, as in the poem “ORIGIN STORY,” that includes:

To make our own the righteous anger
that keeps some people alive
feels like doing something
so grief and fear don’t stir
under their blanket, don’t open their eyes.

So survival does not seem merely accidental
to the indecision when to lay down
the earthly burdens, the way a quality is accidental
to a substance —

In an interview conducted by Daniel Fraser and posted September 28, 2018 at The Rumpus, she speaks to the tension in her work between the relationship, as Fraser suggests, between nature and human life:

The Rumpus: I want to start by asking you about what appears to me to be one of the prevailing tensions in your poems: the relationship between nature and human life. More specifically, the sense of nature as a force that lurks beneath modernity and continually breaks through the surface.

Karen Solie: I suppose I see the tension not in terms of forces at odds, but in the belief that human endeavor is separate from the natural world. We are natural creatures, and all creatures alter their environments. I suspect that separating the natural from the “man-made” has allowed us to distance ourselves, to neglect the implications of our technology, to compartmentalize our responsibility.

We can see the surface of Mars now (and leave junk there), but down here our problem-solving has been narrowed by power interests. If human life and nature are distinct entities, it allows us to prioritize. Prioritizing “progress” has served colonial enterprises very well. If we think of nature and the human as each going about its business, we can more easily rationalize climate change as an acceptable cost; or, in an absurd extension of this, insist that it has nothing to do with us, that islands of plastic in the ocean don’t exist. It allows us to treat wilderness as a playground, to exoticize people we characterize as closer to it, who we then associate with acceptable costs.

“Nature” is that which “feeds our souls,”  which seems an apt metaphor. Remember that Simpsons’ episode in which a classroom filmstrip diagram of “The Food Chain” shows arrows from all creatures pointing to the human’s stomach? Once in awhile we are forced into awareness of our place in the system, the fact that we are not the end point in the food chain. As climate and environmental events have demonstrated, we don’t have the last word. The fastest and easiest response to this fact is avoidance or hysterical denial. So, in what little poetry—my poetry, anyway—can do, I hope to keep alive, or at least gesture toward, the tension of complexity, complication, responsibility.

Solie writes of isolation, the slippery structures of human interactions, violence and tragedy, and what might cause both body and soul to retreat. “Hatred is a plotting emotion,” she writes, in the poem “KENTIGERN AND THE ROBIN”: “and gleefully inclusive.” She writes the landscape and weather as physical characters, sometimes violent and occasionally overpowering, but also capable of great empathy, capable of providing refuge. While it is entirely speculation on my part, I know, I wonder if there is a correlation between the contemplative life that Ethernan considered, seeking insight on the role and responsibilities of the individual, especially in regards to a spiritual life, and Solie herself, who has famously participated in numerous residencies and retreats over the years, some of which have been full-on retreats (as opposed to a straight residency, which includes interacting with student writers). [CORRECTION/EDIT: Karen Solie points out that she has never actually attended or participated in a writer's retreat] And to step further into that argument, what becomes the role of poetry and the poet when climate change and politics overwhelm both conversation and the news cycle? Perhaps these questions are unanswerable, or miss the point entirely. Still: when one is removed, even slightly, from one’s normal world, it can be easier to catch the fuller picture of that world, allowing an insight that might have been otherwise missed, as she writes in the poem “THE SHAGS, WHOSE CONSERVATION STATUS IS ‘OF LEAST / CONCERN’”:

On vertebral rock near Caiplie Caves
like shreds of an outline or shadows freed
of their antecedents, they dry their wings,
eyes closed, faces to the sun. Centre of no
universe, they have the run of the great ancillary.
Through likely they loom large in the imagination
of the sand eel whose peripheries
they torment. As their shouting did mine
wee hours in the silt of my own domain before
the chicks fledged, presumably, the parents
moved on. And I missed them then, as we do
the ones loved best when not around.

Friday, March 29, 2019

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Caleb Michael Sarvis

Caleb Michael Sarvis is a writer from Jacksonville, Florida. He is the author of Dead Aquarium (Mastodon Publishing 2019), the managing editor for Bridge Eight Press, and co-host of the Drunken Book Review Podcast. His work has appeared in Hobart, Saw Palm, Volt, and others. You can follow him on Twitter @cmsarvis.

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

CMS: It was really just a matter of what I was reading. I’ve never been a huge fan of non-fiction, and while I liked and even dabbled with poetry, I was much more interested in narrative. I didn’t really read short fiction until college, but it was the first time I remember loving the discussion of it all.

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?

CMS: Time it takes to start something … that feels like a weird idea I can’t quite wrap my head around. I’ll say that I do table some ideas for later, but when it comes down to starting something, I don’t know, I just do it. I open a word doc and I type. It’s rare that there’s a large amount of distance between my first drafts and the final product. I tinker a lot with individual sentences, with cutting chunks out, but the gist of my stories aren’t that far removed from the original draft. I might change some names, give it a new title, but I’m not one for making a lot of notes. I know some writers save a new draft after every edit and that’s obscene to me. I’m a one living word doc kind of guy.

4 - Where does a work of prose 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?

CMS: The only time I thought I was working on a “book” was while writing the novel I’ve just finished. Otherwise I try to focus on one short story at a time. I don’t care to think about how they relate to each other until later, after they’re all finished, and I’m beginning to realize, “Oh, these few here kind of talk to one another.”

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

CMS: I enjoy doing readings, but only because it’s an excuse to talk about the work after. I’m much more interested in grabbing a beer and talking to people about process and craft and the little things we fight with while trying to write something. Personally, I’m not a great reader. Mostly because I write matter-of-fact sentences most of the time, so when I read them out loud, I sound like I’m droning on to myself.

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?

CMS: Na, not really. Sometimes I get a little curious about structure or form. I’m obsessed with what’s real versus what’s not, and whether that really matters in the first place, and I think all of my writing plays with that, but I don’t necessarily mean it to. I’m just a weirdo who suspects he doesn’t really exist.

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?

CMS: A writer’s only responsibility is to write, and do it well, and help other writers write well, and read other writers’ work and then to keep on writing and reading and writing.

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

CMS: I think an outside editor is incredibly essential, and sure it’s difficult, because they are going to want to change things you don’t want to change, but so what if it’s difficult? Writing is hard, and editing is hard, but if you want to write a good thing, you’re going to have to do that little bit of work.

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

CMS: I told Jason Ockert in a bar that I wanted to be great, and he told me to stop letting my ego do the writing. I still want to be great, but it’s only recently that I’ve begun writing for myself, rather than an audience, and it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to short stories to essays to sports writing)? What do you see as the appeal?

CMS: It hasn’t been easy at all. I envy poets and essay writers for the care they give their work and the way they can suck me in no matter the subject matter. But as hard as it is, I think you have to challenge yourself. Poets have always given the best craft lectures, I think, or at least I’ve always learned the most from poets. I feel most confident in writing a single sentence, I think it’s the strongest part of my work, and so poetic sensibility is an important part of fiction writing for me. The sports writing is just because I love talking about sports.

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?

CMS: My writing routine is to read a lot, get inspired, and then write until that inspiration goes away. If I write 50 words, so be it, at least I wrote that day.

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

CMS: Running, coffee, more reading.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

CMS: What the hell, man. Um … baseball clay? But also peppermint oils because that’s how my wife wakes me up in the morning. She’s got one of those diffusers and that shit rules.

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?

CMS: I say this a lot, but Calvin and Hobbes, the narrative structure of a single comic strip, how Bill Watterson never bothered to explain a whole lot, all that matters to me. And cartoons in general? I’m a big fan of active verbs, and I think the motions of cartoons have given me an awesome bank from which to pull from when I’m writing a very active sequence of events.

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

CMS: The mentors I’ve had along the way really matter to me. I think it’s natural, but they are the example I follow and I like chasing them (the same way I chased my Dad while playing baseball). So Kevin Moffett, Jason Ockert, Marcus Pactor, Corinna Vallianatos, Jessica Anthony, Jeff Parker, and writers like them.

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

CMS: I’d like to write a good chapbook of poetry. I’ve got a large collection of shitty poems. It’s good practice for me, but one day I’d like to start writing good poems and publish something meaningful in that regard.

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?

CMS: I still dream of playing baseball, haha. But if not that, I might have opened a coffee bar and pursued something a little more entrepreneurial in that sense. I like the puzzle of business: How do I keep this thing alive?

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

CMS: I love reading. I love stories. I love making shit. It just kind of works.

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

CMS: This is tough because I’ve been reading a lot of great things, but the last book I read that I can’t stop talking about was The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson. I will talk about that whenever with whomever. Talk about a poetic sensibility in regards to fiction writing … Wow. I might reread it soon. Last great film? I don’t watch too many movies these days, but I rewatch Birdman every few months. I just like it. I like talking about it.

20 - What are you currently working on?

CMS: I just finished a novel about this guy, the death of his wife, the death of Major League Baseball, and what it means to let the past die and yadda, yadda. Now I’m just looking for a home. So, reader, if that’s your speed. Let me know. Maybe we can play catch.