Friday, May 31, 2019

Aaron Vidaver, Counter-Interpellation: Volume One


257 Station Street,
Duncan, B.C.

TO      Adoption Placement Section,
            Child Welfare Division,
            Department of Social Welfare,
            100 West Pender St.,
            Vancouver 3, B.C.                                           August 7th, 1969

RE:FRANKLYN, Virginia Athea

Please find enclosed Background Study of a child being Relinquished for Adoption. The child is expected the first week in September.

                                                            [signature: “E. McKierahan”]

[signature illegible, “for”]
PETER H. CLUGSTON, District Supervisor



I’m fascinated by Vancouver poet, critic, editor and publisher Aaron Vidaver’s Counter-Interpellation: Volume One (North Vancouver BC: CUE Books, 2019). I’ve seen literary works constructed out of the archive numerous times—poems and works of prose that directly utilize and incorporate archival materials—but Vidaver’s latest is made up entirely of archival documents, without editorializing or context, one that provides a fascinating portrait of how one imagines self from the outside. The bulk of Counter-Interpellation: Volume One focuses on Vidaver’s birth, his relinquishing and subsequent adoption, providing multiple and layered view into how an archive, especially one as thoroughly researched as this one, creates a portrait of an individual through what might otherwise be seen as cold and disconnected letters, forms and files.

The book is composed in eight sections—“Letter to Josephine Vidaver / from Ridgeview Elementary School,” “Adoption,” “Birth Certificate,” “International Certificates of Vaccination / Certificats Internationalaux de Vaccination,” “July 1972,” “Alien Registration,” “Collected Evaluations (1975-1995)” and “Hospitalization.” The bulk of the book explores the details of his origins and subsequent adoption, and finally move into his twenties, examining records around his depression and subsequent hospitalization, which shifts the attention away from immediate origins in a curious way (and suggest the book is a collection of all of his official records, which simply happen to be from these two poles of life experience—origins and adult depression). As someone who is also adopted, as well as an author who has been sending boxes upon boxes of literary papers into an archive at the University of Calgary, I have long been curious about the kinds of portraits various archives and archive material might present of ourselves, which in itself causes one to distrust the archive as any kind of complete overview of anyone, instead providing exactly that: a portrait, one that exists from a particular time and place, and one that might even have been curated (or “edited”). What does the archive allow, and what does it leave out? What might the archive, through no fault of its own, overlook, and how might that affect the resulting portrait? The difference between a life lived, I might wonder, and a photograph taken of you with your parents in church clothes. At the end of the collection, in his “Note,” he writes that “Additional notes on the work appear in the final volume of Counter-Interpellation, with a glossary and list of abbreviations, a lexicon, a bibliography and acknowledgments.” Given this is “Volume One,” I can’t presume how many more volumes exist, beyond the singular (although a quick search discovers Daniel LaFrance’s review via The Capilano Review, that suggest three volumes to come), but I am curious to go through this work and realize the purity of the archive being presented, without a single word or phrase of editorial commentary by the author/archivist. While I might be curious to know something from the author itself, I admire the purity being presented here. It might be all the information I need.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Stefania Heim, Hour Book

BUT, SHOULD I NOTE SOMEHOW when the day begins? Time is significant only in relationship to time. When we are awake in the night I want to speak of it. Sleepless gloss. Relate to me as x-2. You, y. Will a new structure [to] emerge? (I want grammar that interrogates and impels). The mother of young children has an imperfect sense of time and attends to other human tides,” wrote E.P. Thompson, showing what capitalism does to inward time. The structures of its apprehension.

At first, my time work has no apparatus. I follow the first break: sacred calendar date as organized fiction—biological, of course, but also affixed by culture to that certain number of weeks. I cried every day after that marked day until I got the baby out. Space-time fabric refigured as cliff shrouded in mist. You have to wait before you are allowed to jump.

                                                In Yoko Ono’s “Fly,” the insect buzzes overhead, lands repeatedly on a woman’s naked body. What version of time is it in which we withstand? My daughter is almost four when we see “Fly”—the gallery showing three window-sized projections on a loop. She prefers the drama of “Cut Piece,” will not move on until it ends. Intuits that performance, like breakfast, has a set time, makes a narrative arc. But it begins again, rushing over us. Its human tide. We wait it out once more: increasingly bold audience, the artist’s discomfort. I repeatedly forget it is my job to anticipate, to announce time. The final go-round I stay tethered to the clock, steeled against absorption in art.

Winner of the 2018 Sawtooth Poetry Prize is American poet Stefania Heim’s second full-length collection, Hour Book (Boise ID: Ahsahta Press, 2019), a title that follows half a decade after her debut, A Table That Goes On for Miles (Switchback Books, 2014), a manuscript selected by Brenda Shaughnessy as winner of the Gatewood Prize. As she writes in her “Author Statement” included with the press release: “I am interested in the ways in which our experience of time is socially, culturally, and politically mediated, and yet constitute by terms we use as though they have transcendent meaning or inherent communicative currency.” Further in the same statement, she writes:

Another important resonance for the title is the medieval Book of Hours. A personal prayerbook for laypeople, the Book of Hours first appeared as an identifiable category in the 13th century and had extraordinary popularity across the various forms it took through the early 16th. Eight prayers dedicated to the Virgin Mary to recite at designated times. Books of Hours exemplify a relationship to time that is at once private (literally, what one does by herself in her room) and communal (other people are doing it in their room too). This sharing gets enacted through the structures of ritual.

Heim’s collection serves as an interesting comparison to Cole Swensen’s own book around the medieval Book of Hours—Such Rich Hour (University of Iowa Press, 2001)—a collection more specifically influenced by the calendar illuminations from a particular medieval example, the Très Riches Heures, and how the illuminations and texts interact with history. While the conversations around time also exist in a more abstract realm, Heim’s poems are intimate, applying the structure of the Book of Hours to unpack her own domestic, as well as the impossibility of the movement of time when one has small children. As she writes in “1:51 PM”: “Everything will be pared / away” or the opening of “9:59 AM” that writes: “Sometimes. Over / time. Many times. / First time. Last time. / Longtime. Formative / time. Around / the time. Same time. / At times. All the / time.” Structurally, the poems point and counterpoint in interesting ways, with the sequence of poems titled with specific times broken occasionally by a kind of “Greek chorus” of prose pieces, threading their way through the manuscript to discuss the implications of time, and these moments, holding the manuscript together quite magnificently.

11:05 PM

Considering the various technologies
by which a violence

might enter
each window. While the shutters

bump bump.
They so gently bump.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Adam Sol, How A Poem Moves: A Field Guide for Readers of Poetry

Here’s something that makes me crazy: I know dozens of readers – smart, informed, enthusiastic readers of fiction and non-fiction of all kinds – who are afraid of poetry. Who fear they “don’t get it.” If you are one of those people, this book is for you.
            I’m not going to try to make a case for why poetry matters. I’m going to just work from the assumption that poetry matters. It matters to me. It matters to the thirty-six poets included here. And it probably matters to you; if you don’t think poetry matters, you wouldn’t have bought or borrowed or stolen this book. So we’ll leave the generalizations about poetry to others. Ultimately I can’t say I get very excited about trying to define what poetry is. I’m more interested in what poetry can do. So while I’m not going to be afraid to get a little professorial if a term or technique needs some explanation or context, I’m going to do my very best to steer clear of big sweeping generalizations. (“INTRODUCTION”)

I’m rather impressed by Toronto poet Adam Sol’s How A Poem Moves: A Field Guide for Readers of Poetry (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 2019), a book that seems to have emerged rather organically out of his experience as a juror for the Griffin Poetry Prize for 2015. As he writes in his introduction: “As the process progressed, I kept thinking, How can I make use of all this good reading? How can I shed light on some of these other books that aren’t making it to the shortlists? There were terrific books that had to be put aside. Even uneven books often had stellar poems inside them. And I wanted to find a way to revisit them once the whirlwind of the jurying process was complete.” Sol’s response, then, was to start a blog around talking about individual poems, attempting to post a new essay every two weeks (I remember when the site began, and I was enthused and curious about it, although the distractions of young children prevented me from properly exploring the posts), and the thirty-five short essays included in this collection exist as a “best of” (a recent exploration of the site also reveals further activity, including a handful of guest-posts).

There is something delightfully casual about Sol’s observations, one that doesn’t sacrifice critical acumen or scholarly purpose, but one that can be enjoyed by both the casual reader and literary insider, and his list of subjects move outward from his own reading interest to the wider literary community, from clear literary heroes Philip Levine, Deborah Digges and C.K. Williams to the work of his friends and contemporaries, including Jeff Latosik, Ali Blythe, Donna Stonecipher, Bren Simmers, Shannon Maguire, Soraya Peerbaye and Liz Howard. The strength of the collection comes from his extensive knowledge, written in such a way as to allow everyone in, as in this excerpt from his essay on a poem by Toronto poet and editor Damian Rogers:

Despite what literary scholars and theorists have been telling us for decades, it’s still a common natural impulse when reading lyric poetry to look for the poet’s authentic experience in the subject matter. Knowing that Plath, Sexton, and Berryman all committed suicide adds a certain aura of authenticity to the anguish in their poems. But are poets under any obligation to deliver this kind of confession? Can we still be moved by a powerful poem about, say, a father’s death, if a poet writes while both his parents are living? Of course. And yet, we as readers still crave to connect a poem to the poet’s biography.

I’ve long wondered why more writers don’t write non-fiction pieces and/or reviews, even if casually, given the presumption that if you write, you will be naturally contemplating how other works are composed, and their structures. I am grateful for this, and am even considering picking up a couple of extra copies, perhaps for mother-in-law; perhaps for my bookish niece (and it was nice to see a couple of essays exploring the work of poets whose work I am rather fond of, including Shannon Maguire, Donna Stonecipher and Liz Howard). I just hope he considers continuing the series, even if as only an occasional one.

The biggest hurdle, one could argue, for contemporary poetry is an ongoing resistance by the general public (one that has to do, in no small part, with public school educations, I might think), and I suspect that anyone willing to attempt Sol’s essays would easily be able to begin to engage with what had previously eluded.

Monday, May 27, 2019

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Daniel Borzutzky

Daniel Borzutzky is a poet and translator, and the author of The Performance of Becoming Human, winner of the 2016 National Book Award for Poetry. His other books include In the Murmurs of the Rotten Carcass Economy, Memories of My Overdevelopment, and The Book of Interfering Bodies. His translation of Galo Ghigliotto’s Valdivia won the 2017 National Translation Award. Other translations include Raúl Zurita’s The Country of Planks and Song for His Disappeared Love, and JaimeLuis Huenún’s Port Trakl. He lives in Chicago and teaches in the English and Latin American and Latino Studies Departments at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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

It didn’t change my life much. I suppose it helped me justify the impression I had of myself as a writer. My work now feels far more serious and far more important to me.

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

I started out writing fiction, though I had always read widely in poetry as well. My fiction turned into weird things that looked like prose poems. The prose poems turned into poem-poems. I started translating around the same time I started writing seriously. My writing and translation practice evolved together.

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?

Some projects happen quickly, some don’t. Some projects evolve from several pieces of ‘failed’ writing that need to be composed in order to get to the actual projects. I tend to write in short spurts. I’ll have a few weeks of a time of being very productive, and then I won’t write for a while. I really like revising once I have a draft of a book. At that point, the manuscript and the individual poems in it generally change in ways I don’t anticipate. And this to do with finding rhythms I wasn’t yet aware of.

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?

My last 4 books are all 1 book.  

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

I like doing readings quite a bit. I don’t ever take for granted the idea that someone would take the time to come and listen to me read poems and I feel incredibly grateful for the invitations I receive. More and more I care about poetry as a way of connecting with other humans, as a way of having conversations with them. I wouldn’t have said that at the beginning of my writing life.

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?

How do we live with violence? How do we live with violence in our communities? How do we live with violence we witness up close and at a distance? How do we live with state terror? How do we live with violences across borders? How do we survive? How do we not drown in despair? How do we find the ability to love in worlds that are always on fire? 

I could go on….

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?

The writer is mostly ignored in the larger culture. I write as if this were not true. I write as if I were always writing in relation to a public who might care. I write so as to imagine a world in which writing is meaningful. I might say: a writer should document the worst of reality. I’d like to believe that this might help us propose the opposite. I don’t. But I write as if I did. Writers should cause trouble, take risks, have the ambition to believe that their work can be transformative. 

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

A good editor is a joy.

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

To not speak.

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

I see poetry and translation as two interconnected parts of my practice.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

I don’t really have a routine. I used to write late at night when I finally got all the day’s duties done. For the most part, I haven’t had a life that’s allowed me to have many free days devoted to writing. But such open spaces may not even work so well for me. I feel best when my writing is assimilated into all the other things that I have to do. I like to write on airplanes when I’m trapped and have nowhere to go. I like to write when I have twenty free minutes before an appointment. I like to write when my car is getting an oil change. I like to write on trains or when I’m on hold with People’s Gas.

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

Cesár Vallejo, CNN, Lucrecia Martel’s La Ciénega, and Soccer.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Fabric softener.  

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?

Sometimes I watch movies, turn off the volume, and narrate everything I see and this becomes a poem.

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

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

Redistribute wealth.

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?

Mathematician. Psychotherapist.

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

I wrote in order to survive all the other things.  

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

20 - What are you currently working on?

I have a few translation projects. Most immediately, Chilean poet Paula Ilabaca’s La Perla Suelta.