Tuesday, April 30, 2019

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Kate Garrett

Kate Garrett is the editor of Three Drops from a Cauldron, Picaroon Poetry, and Bonnie’s Crew, and her own writing is widely published online and in print. She is the author of six pamphlets, with a seventh, To Feed My Woodland Bones [A Changeling’s Tale] forthcoming in September 2019 from Animal Heart Press. Her first full-length poetry collection, The saintof milk and flames, is new from Rhythm & Bones Press (April 2019). Born in rural southern Ohio, Kate moved to the UK in 1999, where she still lives in Sheffield with her husband, five children, and a sleepy cat. Twitter @mskateybelle / www.kategarrettwrites.co.uk

1 - How did your first book or pamphlet change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

My first pamphlet – The names of things unseen – was published as part of a collection of six collections, Caboodle, from Prolebooks in early 2015, and it was an enormous boost. I’d only been getting a few pieces published here and there since early 2012 (when I was already in my early thirties, even though I’d been writing all my life), so to discover my pamphlet had been chosen out of 200 submissions was a huge deal to me. This year will see my seventh chapbook and first full-length collection.
My most recent work often deals with similar things – human relationships, folklore, myth, history – but I’ve certainly grown as a poet, and I experiment more now than I used to. The names of things unseen was mostly made up of poetry I wrote for the final portfolio of my undergrad Creative Writing degree, and written between 2011-2013. I’ve changed in that time.

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

I didn’t come to poetry first! I came to fiction first. After learning to read at two years old, I started writing rudimentary stories of my own about a year later (involving Care Bears, usually). Throughout primary school I wrote short stories and thought I’d grow up to be a novelist. It was in middle school I discovered poetry, or poetry found me. It was also in middle school when I started taking singing and acting seriously, which were shorter lived aspirations in the end, but have helped me as a poet. Writing was never a choice I made – writing was just what I did as soon as I could pick up a pencil, and poetry felt like even less of a choice. I just fell in love with it.

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?

Honestly it varies. Most of the time I start writing a handful of poems and realise they’re running along a similar theme/topic, and suddenly I’m working on a new book. As for whether the writing itself comes quickly, I have a very distinct writing cycle that isn’t apparent to anyone outside of my own head. I have slow times, when ideas are marinating, and flurries of writing/rewriting/editing new poems.
My first drafts never ever look like their final shape – they’re barely recognisable. I start out with a lot of awfully written rubbish in handwritten note form, then I reshape it and flesh it out on the laptop. I don’t think I could write the same way without both of those steps – the pen, then the computer – I’ve got myself into such a routine with it. When I write prose it works the same way.

4 - Where does a poem or 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?

It varies, it depends on the book. Most of my pamphlets, and my forthcoming full collection, have ended up as books only when I’m halfway through them – the poems start to take shape as a whole. But others, such as Deadly, Delicate (Picaroon, 2016) and To Feed My Woodland Bones (forthcoming from Animal Heart Press in September 2019) were clearly going to be little chapbooks on a single concept from the beginning.

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

I love doing readings! One of the things I find most upsetting in the poetry world is the division between ‘page’ poets and ‘stage’ poets. My ideal world is artists from both camps mingling, performing, and being published. I am a ‘page’ poet by circumstance only – back when I only had three children, and my health issues hadn’t fully set in, I was behind a microphone more than I was published on a page. In my teens I was an aspiring actress and singer, and even into my twenties I was a singer, you couldn’t keep me off a stage… so even though I’m a huge introvert, I also have a desire to stand up in front of people and do something with words to entertain them.
But with various chronic health conditions, five children (two who are very small and three teenagers), and no childcare apart from my already overworked husband, I don’t have as much time right now to devote to sharpening my performance techniques, or to do as many readings as I would like. So far this year I have 10 guest spots scheduled, both closer to my own city and around the UK, and I can’t really do more than 12-15 in a year. But I have a full-length collection, The saint of milk and flames, coming out in April (from Rhythm & Bones Press), and the chapbook I previously mentioned, To Feed My Woodland Bones, in September, and can’t imagine releasing books and not reading from them to audiences. That’s personal, of course – I know there are plenty of writers who wouldn’t like to do it, and don’t. But readings are part of the whole thing for me, being a writer would feel incomplete without 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?

The only thing I can do with complete conviction as a poet is dig into the obsessions I feel drawn to explore, whether it’s personal things I can’t release otherwise, or interests I can’t put down. I write a lot about my own experiences with mental health and trauma, my intense interest in history, and also not ashamed to say I have an interest in human relationships (with others, with ourselves, with the universe) but very much skewed toward the occult, supernatural, ethereal, folkloric, mythic, esoteric, spiritual, metaphysical, mystical, paranormal – you get the idea. My simplest view of life is always ‘being human is hard’ and ‘we cannot truly understand the size of the universe we’re inhabiting’ and I think those two things are all I’m trying to figure out and come to terms with when I write, but in more specific detail. And I know I’ll never figure it out, that’s part of the fun.

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?

It feels like we are the ones asking questions and answering them with more questions. It’s why none of us can ever stop writing. We have an endless supply of doubts and curiosity.

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

            I find working with an outside editor extremely helpful, but I’ve also gone it alone (with Deadly, Delicate), and that was fine, too. Most recently when working on The saint of milk and flames with my editor Tianna Hansen (Rhythm & Bones Press), she nudged me about adding more poems because it’s a full length book. It was already far longer than any of my chapbooks so far, but she instinctively knew I was approaching with too much caution. I did, in fact, have quite a lot of poems I was holding back, but now they’re in the book and I have a 50-poem collection thanks to her encouragement.

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

I think the best advice I’ve acquired is more an amalgamation of advice, so more like a lesson I’ve learned, and that’s not to rely on external validation for satisfaction with your creative work (or feel destroyed by criticism). It’s a bit of a blend of the Buddha – paraphrased from the Dhammapada, a wise person is equally untouched by praise or blame – and a couple of my creative writing tutors at uni who said “writing is an insecure business”. And just through writing for so many years without being read, then discovering I am suddenly being read – the thing that matters before anything else is making something the way I want to make it. Some people will like what you do, other people will hate what you do, the vast majority will be indifferent to it – so it’s not healthy to depend on reactions for how you feel about your own writing. The satisfaction should come from the act of writing and creating itself. Or something like that.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to flash fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

I write poetry, prose (flash) fiction, and prose nonfiction, and the genre depends on the subject, really. Quite often my poetry is fictional too, or a blur between fiction and nonfiction. What matters most to me is that the piece of writing works and says what I want it to say.

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?

Again, with a big family and several health issues, a routine isn’t something I am able to stick with very well. Every morning always begins with coffee, though – whether that coffee is followed by writing, editing, reading, or cleaning the house – all while juggling toddlers – depends on the day.

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

            Tidying and organising my house, going for a walk outside, listening to music, reading books, chatting with friends, watching films. All sorts of things, anything that isn’t sitting in front of the writing virtually bashing my head into it with no results.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

            It depends on what ‘home’ means, which is a complicated one for me. I’ve lived in a a lot of places, but my home is where I am now – with my husband and children and cat. With that definition, I’d say rain, coffee, incense, fresh laundry.

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?

            Music has always influenced me. I would say a lot of my efforts with writing are concentrated on making it sound as musical as possible with just rhythm and carefully placed sound patterning. And witchcraft, the occult, spirituality, a sense of performing rituals and observing natural cycles are a big influence, of course. Tarot, and other forms of divination, and I suppose tarot falls under visual art as well. History is always a noticeable presence/influence on my work, but that is somewhat a case of books coming from books – though history comes from all kinds of sources, really.

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

Oh my, if I’m not writing (or mothering or editing) I’m usually reading, so – absolutely tonnes. Jack Kerouac, Sharon Olds, Sylvia Plath, Stephen King were important influences in my younger years. Jayne Anne Phillips, a writer I discovered through university tutors, her stories and prose poems (or flash fiction pieces – I’m never sure with her) were eye-opening for me. But I read very widely, not all of it will have anything to do with my writing, but it will all touch my life in some way. One book that’s been important for life outside of my work is Unf*ck Your Habitat: You’re Better Than Your Mess by Rachel Hoffman. It’s like a realistic view of keeping a tidy environment, if not necessarily a minimalist one which is on trend right now. What I like about it is how it works even if you are dealing with chronic pain and exhaustion, a family of seven, and a messy creative mind doing 100 things at once… it changed my life (and has made me feel like it’s possible to get through the 100 writer-editor things I’m trying to do at once, too).          

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

            Writing wise – write a prose novella. In general – visit Norway.

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?

Well I worked in retail / customer services / behind the bar in pubs for 17 years. When I left school at 18 my life was a bit of a disaster for reasons both within and outside of my control. I ended up not attending university until I was 31 (and in an entirely different country), and like many so-called slackers at the time I felt like if I did a boring, minimum wage retail job I’d have time for my writing, music, etc. Then, of course, I just got stuck doing those jobs because I made a lot of questionable choices in other areas, so even thouh I was writing, singing, whatever, it didn’t go anywhere.
I’m currently a full-time mum, editor, and writer, though I definitely don’t do any of those things for the money (writing, surprisingly, out of the above, pays the best in my case). If I could do any other job, I’d be an (occult) historian and/or medievalist and/or folklorist. I think being a philosopher would be interesting, too. Still, I really think I’d rather be a historian than anything else.

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

Writing and reading are the two things in my life that have always been constant. For a long time I’d have said books were the only things I could trust.

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

            The last great film was a few months ago, and was long overdue – Solaris, the 1972 Russian sci-fi/horror film. It’s my husband’s favourite film, so I’d listened to him talk about how amazing it is for years – staying sceptical of course – and finally watched it with him. It is honestly amazing, perfectly bleak and everything about it is gripping. I was left wishing every film was like Solaris. One of those films that leaves a hole in your heart when it’s finished.
            As for books, I very much enjoyed The Little Black Book of Stories by A.S.Byatt. A contributor to Three Drops from a Cauldron (my web journal for poetry and fiction with myth/folklore elements) recommended it to me about three years ago, and I finally read it in January. It was masterful, and apparently isn’t even Byatt’s best collection – so I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.

20 - What are you currently working on?

            I’m working on a few things. One is a chapbook exploring the symptoms of my premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). PMDD is a condition where the body reacts badly to normal hormonal changes during the menstrual cycle, so it’s like PMS ramped up – suicidal ideation, bouts of rage, despair, self-loathing, excessive physical pain. My chapbook is looking at it through a paranormal lens, and it’s called A View from the Phantasmagoria. So symptoms are things like demons, shadow people, sleep paralysis, poltergeists, etc, and the few things that soothe are written about like they are spells, exorcisms, prayers, and so on. It’s been enjoyable to write, which is astonishing because it’s about a condition that has tried to ruin my life for 20 years. But that’s probably why it’s fun – I’m using that big negative to make something spooky and interesting, and it’s throwing new light on it all.
In addition to that, I’m writing a pamphlet with a friend about angels – not your pretty, fluffy winged things in the popular imagination, but biblical and apocryphal angels, angels as seen in the occult, a smattering of demons, that sort of thing. And another pamphlet with another friend about strange ‘scientific’ and medical beliefs in two contrasting periods in history – my poems are focusing on the late medieval period. I can’t give as many details about those because they’re in their early stages and I’m writing them with others, but I’m just as excited about them as anything else.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Armand Garnet Ruffo, Treaty #

Wendigo Memory

The artist jumps on stage to celebrate his achievements,
takes a moment to honour his grandfather and reads
an accented story about the Weetigo, a gaunt monster
with a greedy appetite – the gaping mouth of residential school
sucking the marrow from his grandfather’s bones,
slurping his blood, exposed brain, and body and spirit
digested and regurgitated for the rest of his days. But
good times are in his words too.

He says they continue to carry him. Can they? What is swept
into the wind returns. I picture him and the old man in a half-
ton bouncing down a dusty reserve road stopping at landmarks,
half-rememebered naming. Niiwak stories of family and
community in the language of a time when the earth was young
like a boy on his grandfather’s knee, hands clasped together
on the steering wheel. Bad medicine, maci-maskihkiy
passed on, unnoticed, pulsing red.

I was quite taken with a reading Armand Garnet Ruffo did in Ottawa recently, as part of the VERSeFest launch of Rob Taylor’s What the Poets Are Doing: Canadian Poets in Conversation (Gibsons BC: Nightwood Editions, 2018) [see my review of such here]. Ruffo read a few poems from his brand-new full-length collection, Treaty # (Hamilton ON: Wolsak and Wynn, 2019), a book in which “Ruffo documents his observations on life – and in the process, his own life – as he sets out to restructure relationships and address obligations nation to nation, human to human, human to nature. In these poems Ruffo has built powerful connections to his predecessors, and discovered new ways to bear witness and build a place for them, and for all of us.” As he writes as part of the notes at the end of the collection:

Although this book covers many things, some only tangentially related to the treaties, it was the treaties that sealed the fate for Indigenous peoples and much of what has happened to Indigenous since can be traced directly back to them. One thing is abundantly clear: what was said and what was done were two entirely different things, and the results have been nothing less than catastrophic for Indigenous people. This is something I’ve thought about for a while, and it was on my mind when I wrote the much anthologized “Poem for Duncan Campbell Scott” back in the early ‘90s.

Over the years, through writing out Indigenous themes, histories and contemporary realities, Ruffo’s work has evolved from what he termed a “protest” literature [he describes it thusly in a 2015 interview I did with him for Jacket2] into a literature of presence. Through Ruffo’s work, it would be hard to dismiss Indigenous experience and perspectives as being both historic and contemporary, existing here far longer than the rest of us have been in North America. Literature by Indigeous writers has evolved enormously across North America over the past twenty years, and, through numerous books as both writer and editor over that time (including his seminal Grey Owl: The Mystery of Archie Belaney, which was subsequently adapted into a feature film), Ruffo has emerged to become one of the most established Indigenous poets in the country (some others on that list that have been around for a while might include Marilyn Dumont, David Groulx and Annharte, among others). The poems in Treaty # write out personal histories and travel, travelogues and traplines, treaties, Pauline Johnson and missing women, to stories from his youth and his own relationships to other writers and their work. “Everything changes except my love,” he writes, to open the poem “At Père-Lachaise,” “writes Apollinaire.” There is an intimacy Ruffo engages, whatever his subject, writing out narratives that explore the world from his own experiences, knowledge and perspectives. As part of his conversation with Liz Howard in Taylor’s What the Poets Are Doing, Ruffo responds:

All of this makes me wonder about the responsibility and the role of poets, Indigenous poets in particular. Can we as literary artists do our own thing above all else or are we compelled by our histories and reality as colonized peoples? To paraphrase Laguna Pueblo writer Paula Gunn Allen, there’s no cavalry riding over the hill to come to our rescue, to be spokespeople for our communities. The living and the dead. To put this another way, are we writing for the children who were beaten and starved to death in the residential schools? I’m thinking here of the tiny graves hidden in the bush near the old St. John’s Residential School in Chapleau. Is writing as artists with no responsibility but to ourselves and our art a luxury we can afford?

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Zachary Schomburg, Pulver Maar: Poems 2014-2018


It’s true, I did get fired
from the globe factory.
I put a beach in N.D.
and us on it but then
I put us in the waves
in a bed on the waviness.
It’s best to just put things
where you think you
want them. When I think
of mountains I think
of beer, and how clean
everything can be.
When I think of buoys
I think of the darkness.
but also I think of seals.
An island is the wrong
symbol for loneliness.
I never wanted two cats.
Now I have nothing
in cats.

I’ve been hearing Zachary Schomburg’s name for a while now, reading a poem here and there in a journal or an anthology, but his latest, Pulver Maar: Poems 2014-2018 (Black Ocean, 2019) is the first full-length collection I’ve had the opportunity to go through. The author of the poetry collections The Man Suit (2007), Scary, No Scary (2009), Fjords Vol. 1 (2012) and The Book of Joshua (2014)—all published by Black Ocean—as well as the novel Mammother (Featherproof Books, 2017), Portland, Oregon writer Schomburg’s Pulver Maar: Poems 2014-2018 is an assemblage of multiple sequences, sections and suites of lyrics, accumulated phrases, lyric fragments and prose poems, sitting at more than two hundred pages in total length. Alternating, sometimes at strobe-light quickness, between darkness and light, the press release informs that these are poems that “are playful but not all play; they carry a humanity and an acute awareness of what it is to try to make a life, whether you’re a mountain or dust or just a human.” And then, in the author’s own description of the collection: “[This] is a collection of poems written between 2014 and 2018. Some of the poems are long, and some of them are short.” There is something utterly fascinating in the way Schomburg builds his poems, composed as first-person narratives with layers of surrealism, absurdism, narrative storytelling and theory. These are poems that evoke, twist and loop into and around expectation until there is nothing left but where the poem has set you, there, down. As the fourth poem in the fifty numbered poem sequence “OARS” reads:

I don’t know where I am.
Maybe on the ground in Australia.
Something’s poison tongue licks my eyelash.
I stare back at it with one eye.
It grows even.
I touch a beating in a throat.
A nod hello?

There is heft to this collection, and there are times I’m reminded of the surrealism of Canadian poet Stuart Ross through these poems, and at other times, especially through the section “THE FUTURE / THE BABY”—a suite of poems that hold either the title “THE FUTURE” or “THE BABY”—Boulder, Colorado poet Noah Eli Gordon (both for structure, and for the fact that he often employs this kind of multiple-poem sharing a title format [see my review of his most recent book here]). Each poem in the suite exists almost as a portrait of the moment where something turns, and in the last direction you might have expected. And sometimes the unexpected turn is in the realization we were going in an altogether different direction all along. His collisions, putting one thought or idea against another, are casual, calm and incredibly striking, and often illuminating through just how unsettling and unexpected they are. As he writes in one of the poems titled “THE FUTURE”: “I say I have something / I’m about to say.” As partof a 2018 interview posted at Neon Pajamas, Schomburg speaks to poetry, and the process of putting a manuscript, and then a final book, together:

Part of poem writing for me is to know, upon returning to poems after a while, which need water, which need trimming, which need polish, which need to be buried, and which need to be left alone. Most just need to be buried or left alone. But a books of poems isn't just made of poems—it's made of paper, and design, and artwork. Thinking about how the book is born from the poems into a thing is a really fun part of the process, and something that I get to do with other people. Writing the poems is solo work, but the rest of it comes alive in collaboration. For each Black Ocean book, with Janaka Stucky's blessing, I've been able to collaborate with my long time friend, Dennis Schmickle. Dennis has designed all of my Black Ocean books, and a few Octopus Books too. That process is a rewarding one, and one that takes on nearly as much importance for me as the poems. Often, through design, the poems will change to fit some concept within the design. The poetry can bend to the intention of the book as an object too. I'll change them to fit the page, so to speak, or to fit within the tone of the book that D is creating. The poetry may feel dated to me personally, eventually, but the book never feels dated. The book will bury us.