Thursday, October 31, 2019

Emmalea Russo, Wave Archive

while in the midst of it aim
to dredge the waves inland
and see the human object wash

from your hairs
wanting badly a pillow
your first word




he watches as you undo the electrodes
and shake out the dried glue which is specific
but not sexy

the electrodes helped gather intel others
have asked for these waves their sorting
horizontal vertical what

ever poured ingredients in the jar
and it’s pure air out there
you’re proud of having rearranged

the air after you color-code the house
start decentralizing the nervous system
find more air

something handheld
with a golden hue fangled and slam (“TREM”)

I’m fascinated by New York City poet Emmalea Russo’s latest, her Wave Archive (Toronto ON: Book*hug, 2019), in which, as the back cover offers, “Russo invokes her own experiences with seizures, photographs and art-making, archival and indexical processes, brain waves, and the very personal need to document and store while simultaneously questioning the reliability of memory and language.” Following up on her full-length poetry debut, G (Futurepoem, 2018) [see my review of such here], Russo’s Wave Archive is reminiscent of Vancouver writer Elee Kraljii Gardiner’s recent Trauma Head (Vancouver BC: Anvil Press, 2018) [see my review of such here], a collection that wrote through and around her mini-stroke and the after-effects, as well as Christine McNair’s current work-in-progress exploring preeclampsia, all of which explore health trauma through a language that works to “articulate the incomprehensible” beyond the lyric or the purely descriptive. While Wave Archive might utilize both the lyric and the descriptive, research and the descriptive, the book blends those alongside drawings, photographs, lists and the experiential, pulling apart cognition even as she works to fully explore those cognitive sparks, breaks and fragments. As part of the book’s opening sequence, she writes: “no it’s not exactly swimming but your head is submerged and you’re sure / that this is closer to therapy than therapy as the mind that occupies you / studies only the next wave or perhaps not even that and as a thought / begins to form the next wave // chops it off [.]” Set in thirteen short sections, including an untitled opening, Wave Archive’s pages accumulate and collage their way through lyric, prose, language poetry, graphs, photographs, indexes, lists, observations, responses and out-of-body experiences to attempt to hold her particular understanding of and ongoing experiences with epilepsy; she attempts to both articulate and understand how information is processed, sorted and re-sorted, writing out her thinking as she is thinking it. Moving seamlessly from the finely researched to the experiential, Wave Archive is precisely that, an accumulation of wave upon wave of Emmalea Russo’s thinking, being and responding through her researches upon and experiences around epilepsy. “You’ve cut the word sick, and its synonyms,” she writes, to open the section “TO FORGET THE SELF IS CALLED ENTERING HEAVEN,” “from your vocabulary.” The piece continues:

You skim the index of the book The Falling Sickness and find that you’ve underlined several entries in haphazard maroon marker.

TEMPERAMENT. The men you’ve loved sing in chorus:

If there is one thing I wouldn’t call you its hemmed in.


An edge

A seizure is an event and, as such, can happen whenever.

The neurologist: Your personality, your short-term memory, will start to be impacted. We want you to be with us for at least five more decades.

In the above sentence, what is meant by “us” is “the world.” You could reword the sentence: We want you to be in the world for at least five more decades. Or: We want you to be alive for the next… Or: We don’t want you to die. Even: The world doesn’t want you to die.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019


somewhere in me
a so-called
original urge
to align
with the astral
    but then
i see
all planetary
to life eternal
among the galaxies
    home to u-turns
cultural autopsies
and finite
of this social
    but baby
if not
then really
should i be? (“glow stick”)

I’m struck by the rhythms displayed throughout Brooklyn-based poet and photographer Ivanna Baranova’s full-length poetry debut, CONFIRMATION BIAS (Montreal QC: Metatron Press, 2019), a compelling, measured and meditative series of threads that unspool with such delightful cadence. “you always / want to be / the fucking foucault / of public spaces,” she writes, in the poem “neon,” adding: “not here [.]” Set in five numbered sections, her poems read like lyric monologues, stretched and stretched out, held together by cadence, accumulation and the constant questioning of where and what one should be. She writes as witness, critic and relentless seeker, exploring power structures, capitalism and environmental collapse, moving seamlessly from abstract to the specific, and attempting as much the appropriate questions as she is the possibility of answers. “how can i // ask you // to max me // out in a way // that’s edgy?” she writes, to open the poem “aloe,” continuing, further on: “i lose // and make the money // spend the money // become // the money // all so // you’ll keep me // in your pocket [.]” I very much like the ways in which her meditations and narratives wander, drift and flow, enjoying the momentum but still curious to see where it all might lead. The poems here are deceptively powerful, wonderfully understated and confident in their curiosity and their poise.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Sadie McCarney

SadieMcCarney's work has appeared  in publications including EVENT, The Walrus, Prairie Fire, Grain, The Puritan, The Malahat Review, Plenitude, The Antigonish Review, and Room, as well as in The Best Canadian Poetry in English. Poems of hers have been finalists for the Banff Centre/ Bliss Carman Poetry Award, the Far Horizons Award for Poetry, and the Walrus Poetry Prize. Sadie's debut poetry collection, Live Ones, came out on September 7th, 2019 from the University of Regina Press.

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

Live Ones, out on September 7th, 2019, is my first book. I can’t really speak to how its publication has changed my life yet, but so far the process of working closely with a publisher and an editor has made me read my work more closely and with sharper tools than my previous equipment. I think that conversion has carried over into my more recent work - certain lines, to me, feel like they have to be refined more before they feel “done” enough.

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

I became a poet because, at 13, I wrote a short story that won a contest and sent me to a summer creative writing program for youth. There I was introduced to poetry that did things like swear and do crazy half-rhymes and feel like fire in your mouth. I wanted to make fire, too, so I started writing poems.

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?

For me it happens one of two ways. Either I lug around lines for years waiting for the right poem to plug them into, or I get a word or line stuck in my head and jot out full a rough draft on the spot. Usually the insta-rough-draft poems are around ¾ there when I first write them down. Then, I tinker a lot and read it out loud so much that I’m sick of hearing it.

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?

A word or a line, more rarely an image, gets stuck in my head like a bad song on the radio. Until I can write it down I’m repeating it waiting in line at Tim Horton’s, I’m chanting it in the bathtub, because the one thing those slivers of poetry are really good at doing is leaving. 

If I get it written down, then it can start to turn into something.

It really depends on the project whether or not I’m actively writing a collection that all goes together. Live Ones was very loose and freewheeling. It was hard to turn it into something that felt like a cohesive whole. All of the projects I’m working on right now, on the other hand, very much feel like I’m writing “a book”.

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

I’ve never done a professional reading before! My first will actually be the launch party for Live Ones. I did readings for poetry class in university. High school was full of a lot of readings for me, too, because for part of it I studied creative writing at a school for the arts. At one of those readings, I was about to start in on a poem of mine and you could hear a pin drop in what was normally a very noisy and chaotic auditorium. That was the first time I remember seriously thinking, “I could actually make a go of this.”

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?

These change from project to project for me. For Live Ones, it was generally “what are the tensions between the world of the living and the world of the dead?” But I don’t usually think in that big-picture way about my writing very often...unless “writing a better poem” is a theoretical concern? I’m very conscious of my status as a university dropout when I encounter questions like this. As in, I don’t feel educated enough to theorize properly, not even when it comes to my own work. But I think, too, that if I knew all of the questions I was trying to solve then it wouldn’t be as fun when I get to the surprise answer.

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 used to think that a writer had a vital responsibility to humankind, toward truth and social justice at every turn. Now I think, if someone wants to take on that mantle, great, but for a lot of people it’s a mantle that requires immense privilege in order to access. So now, I think the role of the writer is to write. Anything else we can do with it is just gravy.

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

It’s difficult, but so needed; no poem is ever perfect. It’s like a box hedge: you have to prune it, and there’s always going to be a spot you missed. A good editor helps you prune your rough edges, even if that means abandoning a stretch of dying hedge altogether. Good things don’t have to be fun or easy.

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

“Keep sending your work out. Take heart; what you are doing has merit.”

It was a rejection slip from Gaspereau Press for my very thin, chapbook-like “first collection” manuscript in 2014. Those words, while a firm ‘no’, nourished me and propelled me to send out the poem that, through a bewildering process of publishing alchemy, eventually landed me a book publication offer from Oskana Poetry & Poetics at the University of Regina Press.

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

I wouldn’t say that I have moved between genres; I think I’d say that I’m a poet and aspiring fantasy author. (I always have trouble sustaining longer prose narratives past the halfway mark, but I’m still hopeful that I’ll manage it one day.) I think I see the main practical appeal as versatility in the workload - if I don’t feel like working on prose, the chances are good it’s a poetry day, and vice versa.

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?

Writing is sporadic, for me, and I’m terrible at sticking to my own schedules most of the time. I often find myself drafting in the evening, but that’s more of a trend than a rule.

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

A hot shower. A brisk walk around the neighbourhood. Playing with my cats. Anything that gets me off the page and out of my own head. Movies and TV and books tend to make it better initially but also worse overall, in my experience, because then you just have somebody else’s ideas rattling around in your head alongside your own. So much mental clutter.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Roast beef dinner cooking. It reminds me of my grandparents’ house, which is where we celebrated most holidays and birthdays. I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 13, but I’d chuck it all out for an exact replica of my Grandma’s roast beef dinner. 

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?

I know almost nothing about botany, but I find myself captivated by whatever plants end up being around me. There’s so much to be gained in a fictional world by writing about its plants - the period, the time of year, the part of the world, everything.

That, and when I was about 11 or 12 I had a giant old art history textbook and an encyclopedia of mythology. I loved both of them, and those are probably two of the books that have influenced my work the most. We were poor and didn’t live anywhere near an art museum, but through those books I got to experience everything from Beowulf to Byzantine church art to Basquiat.

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?

Write a prose novel that actually hangs together as a whole book.

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?

I think I might have done okay in marketing, or a communications job. But I have some mental health concerns that prevent me from working “a day job” at the moment, so I consider myself very lucky to have writing to fall back on. (Yes, writing is my “fall back” career. I do most things backwards!)

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

It was the only thing in school that I was really any good at. I got okay marks in most other classes if we’re excluding gym, but English was the only subject where I felt like I got to show off a bit. That felt pretty good.

For years I was ashamed of this. I was told that to be a Real Writer you had to write because not to write would torment you. Now, I’m not buying that. I simply write because I am not very good at most other things, and that’s okay.

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

Book: Sophocles’ The Three Theban Plays, translated by Robert Fagles, which I re-read for an upcoming project. I don’t watch many movies, but The Wife was a superb and twisty take on what it really means to “be a writer”. Glenn Close is magic.

20 - What are you currently working on?

Finishing up a collection about four facets of mental health, which was funded by the Canada Council. Soon to be starting a verse novel about queer kids coming of age in rural and small-town Nova Scotia, also funded by the Canada Council.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Mark Yakich, Spiritual Exercises

I was curious to see the latest by New Orleans poet Mark Yakich [see my review of one of his earlier titles here], the poetry collection Spiritual Exercises (Penguin, 2019). The poems in Spiritual Exercises articulate quiet meditations on family and faith, on spiritual and domestic matters, consciousness, death and loss, and a multitude of voices, from the “Love Poem to Ex-Husband” to “Parenting from Chicago to Abu Dhabi” to the “Love Poem to Ex-Wife” that begins:

Everyone has a story
He’s tired of telling.

For example,
A child dies and

It’s as natural
As a flower blooming.

And a plane crash is,
As you once said,

Just a “plain crash”—
No more absurd

Than a bouquet
Of fresh-cut flowers.

This is a collection of poems that appear to be centred on voice, working a myriad of narrators and perspectives, including a myriad of mental illness, exes, and those lost in or out of their faith, including a poem around squirrels and psychiatric visits that references Thoreau’s journals, “Seasonal Affective Disorder,” a poem that ends: “But to hell with pills. Friends, / Send down your scat and acorns // On my head. I can take the gravity after all— / Without it, the tears might never fall.” I’m fascinated by the movement of these poems, striking out in multiple directions and voices, some of which are more effective than others, all of which seek out a deeper meaning, and a series of deeper connections, to body and faith. Some distances are impossible to reach, but the reach itself becomes the important thing, it is said; such as the end of the poem “Son of a Nun,” that writes:

If I want to bring her back, I just have to
Put two fingers to my wrist
And face the heartbeats. I prefer
Hands at my throat, scratching carefully
And hard as one does a lottery card.