Saturday, February 29, 2020

Henry Wei Leung, Goddess of Democracy: an occupy lyric

Henry Wei Leung’s remarkable full-length debut is Goddess of Democracy: an occupy lyric (Oakland CA: Omnidawn Publishing, 2017), a collection of lyric narratives stitched together around the nature of identity, exile, democracy and resistance. As he writes in the poem “Life Sentences Sonnet for the Goddess,” a poem subtitled “Tiananmen Square, June 1989”: “I fell in love with love’s treasons. Which of these remain forbidden / words: goddess, swallow, roam, freedom, I?” Published as part of the Omnidawn 1st/2nd Poetry Book Prize, Leung’s manuscript was selected by poet Cathy Park Hong. As she writes in her introduction to the collection:

            Henry W. Leung’s Goddess of Democracy: an Occupy lyric is a powerful poetics on civil disobedience. The core subject in his debut is the titular Goddess of Democracy, the 33-foot paper-mache statue that was first built and then razed during the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Leung directly addresses the Goddess and her replicas throughout the book while bearing witness to the 2014 Umbrella Revolution that paralyzed Hong Kong for 79 days. Although the narrator appears to have been there, documenting the uprising, he also acknowledges his unease as witness since he is not a “native” but one who returns to China after growing up in the States. I love this book because Leung doesn’t give us an accessible individualized account to pull at the American reader’s heartstrings but instead uses his first-hand insights to interrogate Western ideologies of democracy: “what is freedom when divorced from from?”

The poems in this collection are intimate and deeply moving, writing as both witness but inquisitor as well, articulating grief, horror and trauma, as well as an appreciation for the small mercies possible through and around the fragile question of democracy. His poems offer neither shortcut nor solution, but articulate a restlessness and deep attention; writing not to argue what to do through moving forward, but the possibility of moving forward at all, leaving nothing and no one behind. And through such poems, not even his own narrator is spared, as the poem “An Umbrella Revolution” opens:

I leaned against a sycamore and peeled it to paper when a dying person called me instead of an ambulance. Sobbing and listening to sobbing are separate skills. The dry voice at the end is like a dusk sky turning sick shades of green. “Who have I suffered for?” To delay another’s death, I told a lifetime’s worth of lies and promises. A passing dog bit my shin, the most foreign of my limbs. The wound was not deep, yet it remains. A deeper wound would be like absence. I have not mastered absence. I walk along rivers pocketing stones. I cannot bear myself in. I need a volcano, a swallowing like a door without a doorway.

Friday, February 28, 2020

NOS (disorder, not otherwise specified), Aby Kaupang and Matthew Cooperman

Fort Collins, Colorado poets Aby Kaupang and Matthew Cooperman’s collaborative NOS (disorder, not otherwise specified) (New York NY: Futurepoem Books, 2018) is, according to the catalogue copy via the publisher:

[…] a journey of two writers who become lovers who become parents of a special needs daughter. Their experience fumbling toward understanding reveals a medical establishment strangely at odds with understanding.  Their journey unpins the ground beneath them—as diagnosis, as treatment, as daily living, as language—releasing both ferocity and empathy on a scale unimagined by either party. Necessarily hybrid, NOS is a mixed-form narrative about autism and parenting, that’s also a document of trauma. In the extreme present of living a life not otherwise specified, the authors give both voice and shape to the complex journey of a family—not just one child—living with autism.

I’m always fascinated by collaborations between writers who are partnered. It doesn’t occur often, but it does happen, and some of the examples I’m aware of would include Sandra Doller and Ben Doller’s prose-work The Yesterday Project (Sidebrow Books, 2016) [see my review of such here], Vancouver poets Daphne Marlatt and Betsy Warland’s Two Women ina Birth (Guernica Editions, 1994), Toronto poets Roo Borson and Kim Maltman’s The Transparence of November/Snow (Quarry Press, 1985) and Victoria, British Columbia poets Patrick Lane and Lorna Crozier’s No Longer Two People (Turnstone Press, 1979). There was also Robert Kroetsch’s volume of poem/journal entries, Letters to Salonika (Grand Union Press, 1983), less a collaboration than a response to his then-wife, Smaro Kamboureli, during the period she was in Greece composing her own journal, in the second person (Longspoon, 1985). Really, the poetic collaboration is best when it really comprehends that the goal is to write out and into that theoretical space between the two individuals, and partners writing in response to each other becomes the perfect metaphor for that imagined and imaginary combined third.


Inappropriate medication occurs when a patient takes unnecessary or excessive medications. One becomes many in the pluraling of pills. This may happen because the prescriber is unaware of other medications the patient is already taking, or enthusiasm, or an undiagnosed condition. Sometimes the extra prescription is intentional. Sometimes is a theory of consumption. There is a vocabulary in solubility as there are consumers waiting to be filled. One wants facts in the god-doctor world. Additional accumulations occur as snow in the darkness of a child.

Along those lines, the collaborative NOS (disorder, not otherwise specified) is comparable to the Doller’s project, in that both projects include a pair responding in tandem, and in response to each other, to something further. In the case of NOS, it is their shared parenting of a child with autism. As they write: “What is there to say of this child? She lived, lies through this. So did we. You want to know more about her. So do we.” Working from medical records as well as their own experiences, NOS explores the joys and anxieties of parenting a special-needs child, as well as the frustrations of a medical system not properly equipped to assist at the level required. Constructed via lyric and prose fragments with accompanying images, graphs, forms and sketches, NOS works through some difficult, albeit shared, territory with openness, candor, grace. The book is built as an accumulation of poems and sketches collected over a single period, as opposed to having any particular narrative through-line, something that provides a particular anxiety or unsettledness to the project, one entirely appropriate to such a subject matter. This is very much a book composed by two writers as they negotiate and process the experiences that come with being the co-parents of a daughter with autism. Given they are both writers, how else would you think they should respond? The bonus, at least for this, is that they are able to process such together, even as the text provides the occasional, and fascinating, pull between the two voices:

MOC: Matthew feels that to use one’s daughter as a “poetic” subject is taboo. Forgive me then for publicly processing. I embarrass.

Speaking from experience, barely & newly, I pen out my exhaustions, my endless angers.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Lynne Sachs

Lynne Sachs makes films and writes poems that explore the intricate relationship between personal observations and broader historical experiences. Her work embraces hybrid form and combines memoir with experimental, documentary, and fictional modes. In recent years, she has expanded her practice to include live performance with moving image. Lynne was first exposed to poetry by her great aunt as a child in Memphis, Tennessee.  Soon she was frequenting workshops at the local library and getting a chance to learn from poets like Gwendolyn Brooks and Ethridge Knight. As an active member of Brown University’s undergraduate poetry community, she shared her early poems with fellow poet Stacy Doris. Lynne later discovered her love of filmmaking while living in San Francisco where she worked with artists Craig Baldwin, Bruce Conner, Barbara Hammer, Carolee Schneeman, and Trinh T. Minh-ha.  Lynne has made thirty-five films which have screened at the New York Film Festival, the Sundance Film Festival, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Walker Art Center, and the Wexner Center for the Arts. Festivals in Buenos Aires, Beijing and Havana have presented retrospectives of her work. Lynne received a 2014 Guggenheim Fellowship. In early 2020, her newest movie, Film About a Father Who, will premiere on opening night at the Slamdance Film Festival and in NYC at the Museum of Modern Art. Lynne lives in Brooklyn. Year by Year Poems is her first book of poetry.

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

Writing YEAR BY YEAR POEMS did not just change my life, it was my life. When I turned 50, I decided to reconnect with every year of my life, so far, by writing a poem that explores the relationship I had had with something beyond my control, outside my domestic universe.  The personal confronts the public, and vice-versa.  Writing these poems forced me to carve out precise distillations of these moments in my time and our shared time.

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

I have been writing poetry since I was a child and filmmaking is actually an extension of this desire to process my bewilderment and occasional understanding of the world that spins around me.  The personal, experimental, essayistic, documentary approaches I bring to my filmmaking are extensions of the thinking involved in writing a poem.

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?

I adore first drafts and for this reason I try to write my poems by hand, with a pen on paper.  I return to them like an archeologist, relishing every gesture that I see on the page. With this in mind, I included many of my first drafts – as images almost – in YEAR BY YEAR POEMS.  So far, readers have generally appreciated seeing these visualizations of the process of writing, moving back-and-forth between the inchoate first draft to the finished, edited, typed version.  My mother was the only person who thought some of the poems were better and more fleshed-out in the original drafts.  I thought this was apt, since her perspective on my life is probably the most complete.

4 - Where does a poem, work of prose or film-script 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?

Each poem in YEAR BY YEAR POEMS begins with a year. In fact, I gave myself the pleasure of inventing a new graphic font for each of these 50 years, and these designs/ doodles became the cover of the book.  Limitations or constraints on the writing of a poem actually allow me to work in a more expansive way.  I feel less overwhelmed by the daunting challenge of trying to say something.  In terms of my filmmaking, I have made 35 films, the shortest being 3 minutes and the longest 83.  I just completed FILM ABOUT A FATHER WHO which is 74 minutes and will premiere next month as the opening night film at Slamdance Film Festival in Park City and then at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in February.  Believe it or not, I started this film in 1984 and just finished it. The only way I could find its structure was to create many short films and then to find search for compelling transitions.

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

I have finally discovered the joy of reading from my book in front of an audience.  I have never ever been an actor so it did not really appeal to me before.  Now, when I am reading from my own book, I feel deeply connected to the listeners in the room. It is so much fun to watch people responding. I have recently read or will read at Berl’s Poetry Bookshop, Topos Books, McNally Jackson Bookstore, KGB Lit Bar, Court Tree Gallery, Penn Book Center, and Museum of Modern Art Buenos Aires (with a translator). I will be reading from my book and showing my films at the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library for National Poetry Month in April, 2020.

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?

I think my deepest concerns stem from my visceral devotion to feminism.

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?

A writer should stir of up thought and encourage a fascination with language.  Writers who have found a place in the community should also encourage others with less experience through workshops that bring in people who have not yet named themselves as “writers.” 

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

I absolutely adore working with an editor, both people I know and trust to be honest and kind and people who care only about one thing – making the text better. In writing my first book of poems, I worked with my Tender Buttons Press editrix Lee Ann Brown who had some uncannily astute suggestions that included line breaks, word choices, finding clarity, carving way too much explication and everything in between. Working with her as well as my poet friends Michael Ruby and Michele Somerville was a gift.  In addition, very early on, I actually hired a graduate student in creative writing to meet with me just a few times. She would read the poems with such distance and objectivity. It was refreshing, and I didn’t feel guilty asking her to explain what she thought since I was paying her.

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

Read your poems out loud to yourself. Listen to the rhythm and feel it in your body.

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

Oh, you really ask such insightful questions.  What do I call myself? Am I filmmaker who writes poems?  Can I be more than one thing? Can I just be an artist? Can I change according to my surroundings?  I think our culture is actually becoming more open to these permutations.  Patti Smith (musician and author) and Tony Kushner (playwright, screenwriter and children’s book writer) are two of my heroes in this respect.  Finding visual or textual distillations is at the foundation of both my writing and my filmmaking. In neither situation do I ever call myself a storyteller.

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?

On a writing day, I do what so many other writers do. I am not particularly ingenious in any way. I go out to a café, buy a cup of tea (preferably in a teapot) and begin to write. As long as the music is good and people are not talking on their cell phones, I am happy.

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

When my writing feels hampered by the clutter of my life, I set limits. I frame my ambition by a constraint, like only thinking about one particular conceit or finding my way to the bottom of the page.  I try, though I am rarely successful, not to read what I have written as a reader but rather as co-conspirator with absolutely no taste. Taste is dangerous. So is the internet, so I try to reject that in any way possible.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

About twenty-five years ago, I was visiting the Glen Canyon Dam at Lake Powell in Utah. It’s a very strange and other-wordly lake, mostly because it is artificial and built by recreation lovers who didn’t mind filling in a canyon in a naturally arid landscape to create a place for water-skiers.  My sister Dana Sachs and I were together in the elevator descending to its lowest level.  When the elevator doors opened, we immediately turned to one another and remarked that this dark, intimidating, cement space smelled like our grandparents’ home in Memphis, Tennessee, a place we had not been inside since we were children.  Recognizing that “fragrance” concretized our sensory bond as sisters who were carrying so many of the same memories.

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 am very influenced by the conceptually rigorous approaches of Vito Acconci, Ana Medietta, Carolee Schneemann, Adrian Piper, and Hans Haacke.

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

Last week, I finished reading James Joyce’s Ulysses. It took me six months and the experience was fantastic and awful, ultimately ending with ecstasy.  The experience was convulsive and exasperating. I was transformed in a way that was truly extraordinary. I am a different person now that I have read Molly Bloom’s treatise on her body in the book’s last chapter; her one-sentence no-punctuation 25,000 word spin through the sensual made me reel and dream and sing.  I would add to that a few other writers who come to mind today: filmmaker and poet Trinh T. Minh-ha, author and scholar Tera W. Hunter, author Claire Messud, poet Lee Ann Brown, and poet Katy Bohinc.

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

Canadian film director François Gerard completed his highly successful film Thirty-TwoShort Films About Glenn Gould in 1993.  In an interview, a reporter asked him what he planned to do next. His response was that he planned to do nothing.  Doing nothing for an artist can be transformative. I envy people who claim to be bored.  I do not have a horror vacui. I search for emptiness and find a sense of tranquility. Ultimately, it is very productive.

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 did consider being a human rights attorney, a pediatrician or an anthropologist. I also wish I could cook well, though I don’t aim to be a chef.

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

Writing gives me so much oxygen. When you write, you feel like you added one minute to the 1440 minutes in a day.

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

As written above, I recently completed Ulysses, but you know that is a great one.  I also was very taken with Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts which showed me how to weave together intimate personal writing with more theoretical investigations.  I return over and over and over again to filmmaker Ken Jacobs’ Star Spangled To Death, which is his opus film that he bravely refuses to complete.

20 - What are you currently working on?

Oh Ida:  The Fluid Time Travels of a Radical Spirit, an experimental, sci-fi essay film that will trace the erasure and recent emergence (in the form of monuments) of the story of activist and journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett who spent her early years in my hometown of Memphis, Tennessee and committed her life to nurturing a spirit of liberation in the face of resounding racial violence. I am making this film with author Tera Hunter and a few weeks ago we started shooting. It’s a blissful, intense collaboration.