Wednesday, March 31, 2021

francine j. harris, Here is the Sweet Hand


The joke is orange. Which has never been funny.
For a while, I didn’t sleep on my bright side.
Many airplanes make it through sky.

The joke is present: dented and devil.
For a while, yellow spots on the wall.

Obama on water skis, the hair in his armpits, free.
I thought the CIA was operative.

Across the alley, a woman named Mildred.
Above the clouds in a plane, a waistline of sliced white.

I don’t sound like TED Talk, or smart prose on Facebook.
These clouds are not God.

I keep thinking about Coltrane; how little he talked.
This is so little, I give so little. (“Single Lines Looking Forward / or One Monostich Past 45”)

I’d been eager to go through a copy of Houston, Texas poet francine j. harris’ third full-length collection, Here is the Sweet Hand (New York NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020), given how struck I was by play dead (Farmington ME: Alice James Books, 2016) [see my review of such here], a follow-up to her debut, allegiance (Detroit MI: Wayne State University Press, 2012). harris has a way of seeing and presenting the world through stunning lyrics, writing the personal and the political in equal weight; presenting the world in which she lives, moving simultaneously through political reportage, personal memoir and cultural observation. The poems that make up Here is the Sweet Hand appear to exist in that stretch of time beyond American President Barack Obama’s final term and into the stress and horror of the weeks and months that followed, although as part of her “Ten Questions” interview posted online at Poets & Writers on August 4, 2020, she specifies the timeline of the collection:

How long did it take you to write Here Is the Sweet Hand?

This is always a difficult question for me because I build manuscripts from poems that fit together. The oldest poem in Here Is the Sweet Hand is probably from 2007, but many of the poems that determine the mood of this book were written in the last two years. Also, several of the poems were written during my time in northern Michigan a few years ago that kind of set the stage for the collection.

harris is capable of remarkably powerful and evocative descriptions, sweeping across large distances in the stretch of mere sentences, as she writes as part of the poem “Reflections in a Pool of Hair,” “You wheeze / and the small gay men at the bar spend sunset / tuning American Idol onto two screens. // They talk like bar glass. In their gravel, they vote singers. // There is a tingle at the back of your throat that holds the phone on hold / and thinks the words // Obama.” Here Is the Sweet Hand is a book exploring division and crises; a book of conflict. “This // the living, barely breathing language. This / the language with no hope for a new organ.” She writes, as part of “Language over information…” “Now this / over here language could be saved, if only // we had enough oxygen. There is no oxygen. But here, / this language only needs a suture for its passive voice, / a simple interrupted stitch for its drone-on spiel. Language takes / information by its hair and rides it // nighttime.” harris writes of conflict seeking comprehension; how conflicts occur and how to solve them, although fighting her own share of occasional battles. Some battles require the fight. “For the absence of / language,” she writes, “there is more than one side.”

“I can’t / imagine you any thinner if it’s revolution // you want, I’m gunless like a thing with wings.” she writes, as part of the poem “Junebug.” harris captures a moment, and even a tone, of time in dense language, yet allowing an ease through which any reader might be offered and allowed in. “I caught my hair on fire in a fistfight. We had / decorative words.” she writes, to open the poem “Ask me now and I would say.” The flourish and relish of her language cascades, bounds and bounces, and clearly delights in a serious play, as harris clearly isn’t afraid of any blending of conversational and written language, interplaying the casualness and density of what is possible through one word simply following another. As she writes in “Ask me now and I would say,” further on:

Someone in those moments is sure to get scratched.

She grew out her nails for it.
I lit her up in the dark. In this retelling, we both spit out

hunks of each other on the bathroom lawn where raccoons ditch.
In this version, no one succumb. No freeze on a narrative

and all explain away bully by her dark-skinned cheek.
In this retelling, I get beneath her

in the greased grass. I watch the star
in her eye and we

roll over it. We unbridle that shit.


Tuesday, March 30, 2021

12 or 20 (second series) questions with James Davies

James Davies is a poet whose works includes stackPlants, Forty-Four Poems and a VoltaA DogSnowRocks, and AcronymsHe is also the author of two novels: The Wood Pigeons & When Two Are in Love or As I Came To Behind Frank's Transporter (written in collaboration with Philip Terry), as well as the short stories The Ten Superstrata of Stockport J. Middleton & Changing PieceIn addition to being the editor of if p then qbetween 2008-2018, he was the co-organiser of The Other Room reading series & resources website in Manchester, and in 2017-18 he was Poet in Residence at The University of Surrey.  

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?

Three of my earliest published works: The Manual Handling Process, Acronyms and Plants deal with trying not to say. The Manual Handling Process is a piece of found poetry. The poems in Acronyms are original acronyms that I’ve coined which don’t originate from any source words. Half of the poems in Plants are a sequence called ‘unmades’ that record the deletion of poems. Most of the rest of Plants is filled with my own flarf, which is to say that I wrote the junk rather than harvesting it from the internet, preferring the process of writing my own garbage rather than trawling through the web. Poems like ‘Kate Bush’, ‘wasps’ and ‘Goody Blake and Harry Gill’ – a translation of Wordsworth’s poem – are done through my own flarf voice. My current work tries to say more I guess. My book ‘stack’ is predominantly about walking. And my latest published book Forty-Four Poems and a Volta, and the as-yet-unpublished All is but Toys, have poems which discuss our ecological crisis through a minimalist poetics.

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

I got the spark from reading Keats when doing my A-levels. I also got into Surrealism at the same time, Magritte and Dali primarily. I read The Surrealist Manifesto, and in those pages read Dali’s poem Dandled Brochure which was a big influence. Seeing that a painter could write poems, and that art was fluid and highly malleable was important. Then I wrote like crazy maybe 2000 poems all shapes and sizes, from the age of 16 until say 22.

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 generally write quickly. Most of my poems nowadays are short. Once they’re written I give them breathing space and then tinker with them in small ways. About two years ago I did a complex translation of William Carlos Williams’s ‘so much depends’. That poem went through a lot of working on the page but heavy editing is an anomaly nowadays. In the past I used to write longer poems more regularly and edit and edit until the last version looked nothing like the first. So I've been through that process and enjoyed it and perhaps miss it. Two sonnets that were worked for hours and hours eventually became two deleted poems in ‘unmades’, just leaving the title of the poem and the date of the deletion.

4 - Where does a poem or work of fiction 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 of my last three or four books of poetry use a particular form that I've stuck to throughout. I often target writing a certain number of poems and then the impetus to write in that way is usually exhausted.

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

I enjoy giving readings very much. Reading in front of an audience allows me to explore different ways of presenting the poems. At readings I often present versions or remixes of the work in the books. PowerPoint for example has been something I’ve used often. More recently I’ve been making single poems from All is but Toys into one-off books or sculptures. I’ve made about seventy or so and read from them to the audience. I use various detritus for the covers and the pages, and bind the books crudely. For some books I use materials like jars, cans and lightbulbs as the book covers. They’re beautiful things.

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?

‘stack’ was written for a PhD and I suppose behind the poem is some theory. I would probably prefer to call it influence and politics. Amongst other things ‘stack’ explores minimalist poetry and various ways of walking. However, there are many other theoretical concerns which interest me and I do not believe that poetry needs a one-size-fits-all model, or universal manifesto.

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?

Again I would say there is not a one-size-fits-all answer to this question. For me, at the moment my principal concern is to write for my own growth. One thing that makes a piece of writing great is if it is original. Any readers of my work would have to be the judge of whether I'm successful in that pursuit. As a reader, for me to be really excited, I like to read poems that do something new. However, I can see the importance of poems that have valuable messages to deliver, yet which aren't especially interesting from a formal perspective.

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

It's not essential but it can be useful to have another person's perspective. Generally, nowadays, when I submit a manuscript I am confident that it's working. The best editors are probably those that I show the work to before I submit. And the best of those editors is my partner.

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

In a BBC Imagine documentary the artist Sean Scully says that if you are confident in your work and abilities, ignore what any detractors say and basically take no shit. Another piece of wisdom comes from John Berryman, who in conversation with Al Alvarez says that the validity of a poet’s work is in the close correspondence with a handful of people who genuinely believe in your work.

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

The two novels that I've written both tell stories: The Wood Pigeons and When Two Are In Love or As I Came To Behind Frank's Transporter (co-written with Philip Terry), as well as my recent short story The Ten Superstrata of Stockport J. Middleton (a rewrite of the first page of Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch). My poetry on the other hand has no narrative elements to it. The appeal of writing in different genres is therefore simply to write for a different purpose.

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?

No writing routine. It wouldn't be useful. Most of the poems I write are very short and I write them when they come to me. When the writing is longer I try to write the poem there and then if possible, or at least a sketch of it, then look for some free time later.

However, in contradiction to saying that I have conducted a number of daily writing projects, all of which have involved writing in a short space of time using a system. My novel The Wood Pigeons started off as a 365 word story. I then proceeded to remove a word at a rate of roughly one per day for a year, which for the grammar to work amounted to 261 days = 261 pages. Some projects have more directly investigated time. doing (published in Rampike and ctrl+alt+dlt) involved me writing a line after looking at some plastic cubes and some plastic detritus (if and only if I felt a strong energy). The line is always ‘i looked at the bits of plastic’ with a date added. I wrote around thirty lines over five years, so not very many but the project was with me that whole time. In contrast in if I roll a five then i stamp the date each day, for five years, I rolled a six-sided die that had the number five on every side. After I rolled a five (as of course is inevitable) I stamped an index card with the date and filed that away. Both of those projects are indebted to the great artists On Kawara and Tehching Hsieh. I haven’t committed to any more daily writing projects recently like that. Both of these gave me tremendous pleasure in writing poetry daily or regularly. Yet, at the same time, being aware of the passing of time was very painful. Maybe some people might pass into a state of enlightenment that way; it felt something close for me.

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

These three usually do the trick: walking, visiting art galleries, reading.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

The sea.

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 can think of too many things over the years that have influenced my work. You often find lists of thanks in pop CDs from the late 80s onwards. The band Loop Guru sometimes publish an inspiration list in the sleeve notes of their albums. So here’s mine as an epigraph to the poems I’m currently writing, in no particular order: Underworld, The Prodigy (the first two albums), Suzanne Ciani’s Seven Waves, Mike Oldfield (the first four albums), Yes (Fragile and Close to the Edge), Stephen Ratcliffe, William Basinski, John Clare, Kate Bush’s Aerial, Philip K. Dick, Vangelis’s Blade Runner soundtrack, outer space, Wittgenstein, Yoko Ono, Ben Patterson, Fluxus scores as a whole, Robert Grenier, P. Inman, Carl Andre, Robert Lax, William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein, Aram Saroyan, the ecological crisis, The Future Sound of London’s Lifeforms and ISDN, Lawrence Weiner, Donald Judd, Heimat, Steve Reich, Mike Nelson, Rebecca Horn,, Ulrike Ottinger, Robert Fitterman’s Rob’s Word Shop, Dieter Roth, MMU Special Collections Library, The Poetry Library London, The Orb’s Orbus Terrarum, Joe Simpson, Peter Jaeger’s Midamble, Thomas A. Clark, Alex Haley, my own walking experience, Dan Flavin, David Lynch, Richard Long, Hamish Fulton, On Kawara, Teching Hsieh, Harold Budd, Hermann Hesse, Issa, Kurt Schwitters, Vito Acconci, Ursula le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven, Mondrian, Carlos Casteneda’s The Teaching of Don Juan, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Robert Calendar, Ellie Harrison, Mette-Sophie D. Ambeck’s 367, Wayne Thiebaud, Buddha, Clark Coolidge, Marina Abramović , Cindy Sherman, Dorothy Wordsworth, family and friends, Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, Lee Kang-hyo.

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

See 14.

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

I have just started a walking project which (if completed at all) will take many, many years. The intension is to walk ten miles or more on each of the 403 UK ordnance survey maps. The only other rule is that on each of these individual walks I won't cross over onto another map. The project will definitely inspire some writing but at the moment I don’t plan any writing directly related to it.

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?

A badminton player. It’s all based on instinct, you are completely in the moment, a moment with incredibly purity and beautiful patterns.

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

For me writing often puts me in an extreme state of bliss. There are other activities in life where I feel a similar level of bliss; I've mentioned some of them in this interview. If writing stopped giving me extreme bliss any longer then I'd abandon it.

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

For a book I’ll go for Will Montgomery's Short Form American Poetry which I’ve just finished. It’s exhilarating throughout. The chapters on Lorine Niedecker and Larry Eigner are particularly astute. I’ll modify the second part of this question by choosing the ten-part TV series Too Old To Die Young directed by Nicholas Winding Refn which has some stunning lighting and photography.

20 - What are you currently working on?

In the last two books that I’ve written – Forty-Four Poems and a Volta and All is but Toys – I use a two-liner form; a form that probably originates in the work of Aram Saroyan and Robert Grenier or in Fluxus scores as Will Montgomery has recently suggested. I'm continuing to use this form for new poems. These poems are often written using disjunctive syntax. The effect of the collapsed language slows down the reading process and opens up multiple meanings. At the back of my mind the naïve voice that I’m currently alludes to the collapse of language and the planet. It seems the right way to go about writing at the moment.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Monday, March 29, 2021

Megan Kaminski, Gentlewomen


the lost girls

this is how we disappear
walking without hesitation into darkness —
  sacks filled with glass bottle and feather

boots lifting from gravel
forward to song and snow drift

stars pave paths through commodity wheat
trestle the cold in cottonwood gambrels

these verdant hills, our new mother
grain elevators hold tight and tidy to

cloud-begotten fields
a daughter who never returns    never disappoints

leaves behind empty rooms and notebooks
filled with sentences writing books to

barricade doors silent in sleep each night

I’m pleased to see a new poetry collection by Lawrence, Kansas poet Megan Kaminski, her Gentlewomen (Blacksburg, VA: Noemi Press, 2020), following Deep City (Noemi Press, 2015) [see my review of such here] and Desiring Map (Atlanta GA: Coconut Books, 2012) [see my review of such here]. Back in 2014 for Touch the Donkey, she spoke on the manuscript, still very much a work-in-progress:

My second book, Deep City, is going to be coming out next year—I’ll have an official announcement soon—and “Sister // Deer” is part of my new/current project Gentlewomen. The poems in Gentlewomen play around with and revise gendered domesticity through a re-imagining of the voices of female allegorical figures, specifically Natura, Providentia, and Fortuna—giving voice to particularly feminine desires and appetites. The poems consider the kinds of wildness and incivility that arise from a rejection of various forms of cultivation. They also celebrate feral longings and weedy appetites as counterforces to productivity and as a means of reclaiming the wild. As I’ve been working on the project, I’ve become particularly interested in sisters and the idea of sisterhood, in the relation of the allegorical figures to each other and also the relations of the various other women who inhabit the book—lost girls, icy mothers, drowned and ghosted children, and also the two sisters who get their own long poems, “Dear Sister” and “Sister // Deer.” While “Dear Sister” and her correspondences (there’s an excerpt here at Two Serious Ladies) live very much in the suburban domestic sphere, “Sister // Deer” rejects that world. While I think of her poems very much as spoken utterances, as a kind of response to her sister, they are also language eroded through a kind of self-erasure. A resistance to pleasantries and the types of usefulness and meaning that create the language of her sister. The poems aren’t conventional utterances, and they aren’t the type of responses one might expect to correspondence, and “Sister // Deer” herself perhaps isn’t quite human.

Structurally, Kaminski has long favoured the book-length lyric suite, and Gentlewomen is composed in five sections—“NATURA,” “DEAR SISTER,” “PROVIDENCE,” “DEAR SISTER” and “FORTUNA”—as her poems, as her three characters, weave in and around each other as lyric ripples, echoes and repeated visions, composing poems with repeated titles that intertwine with ecological concerns, the natural world and its impulses. Kaminski has long composed poems around ecological concerns as an ongoing ecopoetic, but this collection allows a human component to blend in alongside, providing two threads of threatened safety that can be worked against through collective action and attention. This is a book of sisters, possibly playing off the ancient Greek idea of the three fates (shown in different forms such as Macbeth, as well as Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman), as hers adhere to the possibilities of what the world has to teach: “She put her ear to the earth / she put her ear to the earth and listened / she put her ear to the earth and listened to what was below / she listened for she who could not listen she who had stopped / listening long before / she listened for a heart that echoed into concrete and sod and / subcutaneous rock and water tables and pipelines and /permafrost and petrified bone forgotten bodies and microbes / teeming” (“Dear Sister”). Hers is a book of female support and sibling connection, collective labour and collaborative action, and the implications and destructiveness of male hubris. “Live down on the ground.” she writes, top open “the lost girls”: “Lie / down on the ground like that. / And we will carry tree limbs and / bush scrawl. And we will build a fire / to warm paw and foot.” Through Gentlewomen, Kaminski writes the difficulties of the world even as she writes to push against them, from the disappeared and damaged, both in human capacity and nature, into something that can be salvaged and defended, if one simply pays attention as to how. “I promise to treat / you more sweetly,” she writes, “and hold you close / to trace echoes and thoughts to conclusion.”