Monday, May 31, 2021

Lyn Hejinian and Leslie Scalapino, Hearing


            There’s a hole in the wall, but for this to be the case, the wall had to exist before the hole – as hearing. Hearing occurs at the beginning – rowing at the wall. But (again) rowing is ahead of the wall. And so on. I want to say it (rowing hearing wall) is ‘saved for the beginning,’ but that would be a future beginning and thus not correspond to what I intuit as ‘bliss,’ which is real incipience, of an entirely new thing, something unanticipated. In the realm of hearing, anticipation does, of course, occur – there is a ‘waiting to hear,’ for example, of a report which is to be given to a person in doubt. But at the moment of actually hearing it, whether the report is ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ the hearing itself, as hearing, occurs in a moment of absolute freedom, utter deracination, floating – ‘rowing wall.’


The second in a planned but unrealized quintuplet of poetry titles is Lyn Hejinian and the late Leslie Scalapino’s (1947-2010) poetry collaboration, Hearing (Litmus Press, 2021). Following the collaborative Sight (Washington DC: Edge Books, 1999), this current volume had aimed to be part of a series of volumes the two poets had hoped to complete, with each volume centred around another of the senses. Hearing includes an introduction by Hejinian, and afterwards by both Judith Goldman and Michael Cross. It was poet, editor and critic Cross [see my review of his recently-published chapbook-length interview with Scalapino here] who originally discovered and salvaged the manuscript from Scalapino’s archive at the University of California San Diego, subsequently working through and comparing the literary archives of both poets to determine what might be the “final” version of the collection, allowing the collection to shift from a potential footnote into finished, published form.

Given this is one of the final, if not the final, possible volume of new work by the late beloved Bay Area poet Leslie Scalapino, seeing three pieces included that discuss the work within seems both a gift and a rarity. As Buffalo, New York poet and critic Judith Goldman writes as part of her critical afterword, “Hearing Hearing”: “As title and work, Hearing invites us to think of hearing as the most capacious rubric for all our encounters with sound (whether by turns more or less conscious, overcoded, embodied), and as a stripped-down, minor term opposed to its more attentive partner “listening”—hearing as sound catching us prior to cognizance, sound as ground versus figure. Indeed, Hearing asks us to consider the many ways this distinction is embedded in our culture: hearing is involuntary, listening is intentional and voluntary; hearing registers ambient sound, listening sonic events; hearing identifies sound as index, listening is hermeneutic, discerning meaning, vouloir-dire; hearing involves affect, listening concepts.”

As Hejinian writes in her introduction: “Leslie used the term ‘continual conceptual rebellion’ to characterize what she called ‘wrecking your mind.’ I think that the latter phrase was something that Leslie’s friend the poet Philip Whalen spoke of aspiring to in his writing. He was, apparently, speaking not of Leslie’s mind but of the mind of his readers and, more important, of his own. I have written about this elsewhere and won’t belabor the idea here. My point is that the notion of ‘continual conceptual rebellion’ (a notion that became something of a north star for me) and the practice of ‘outrunning’ ideologies (including one’s own)—i.e. ‘wrecking your mind’—was vey much implicit in the ways that Leslie and I responded to each other’s additions to Hearing (and to Sight before it).”

            The brief time, which is one’ s own lifetime, and the expanded moment of the falconer tramping through the red-rust fields – is in the middle for a long time of someone else’s ‘experience’ within one’s own very brief time (of being alive at all) – both – in which everything is heard, such as birds, separately from when it is being seen. While there? So the falconer is heard walking but since it's a memory that it occurred, one’s hearing is separate from seeing the place. Even in the falcon’s gliding’s long present-time. One’s long moment in the middle gives one the sense of hearing and seeing as if together – that’s why it’s so long. The gliding’s separate from oneself as if it’s a middle by being a motion that’s silent. But it isn’ t really silent, then. getting old – memory of hearing – that’s the only time there.


Theirs is a fascinating kind of call-and-response through the poems in Hearing, each short single-stanza lyric burst including author initials, so one doesn’t lose track of who composed which, from two poets deeply engaged with language, listening and experimentation. The crediting of each individual author is something I find interesting, suggesting the collection less a collaboration-per-se than a conversation in poetic form. This is a lyric through which each poet is responding to the other, akin to what Canadian poets and married couple Kim Maltman and Roo Borson did in their own conversation through lyric, the poetry title The Transparence of November / Snow (Kingston ON: Quarry Press, 1985). In Hearing, there is something lovely about a collection that exists as such a conversation, especially between two highly accomplished poets who happen to also be close friends, as though we are being allowed to listen in on, or even overhear, a conversation that might otherwise have been privately spoken. As Michael Cross’ afterword, “Ruminations on the Provenance of a (Nearly) Lost Collaboration” ends:

            From our conversations, there is no question that Leslie wanted to see this manuscript in print and that she was proud of her collaborative work with Hejinian (a writer and friend she greatly admired). Had she lived, the two collaborators might have found occasion to continue and would have, at the very least, revised the project together in person; however, given the circumstances, this publication captures this collaboration at its aphelion, the denouement of one of its possible afterlives. In order to allay our loss, I tend to imagine some placatory parallel universe, some peaceable pocket of time in which Leslie dodged the terrible pancreatic cancer that took her life: in this version of reality, perhaps readers will enjoy the privilege of witnessing these poets ruminate on all five senses; for our part, however, in which we mourn the loss of one of our true masters, sight and sound must suffice.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Kama La Mackerel, ZOM-FAM


every space in this house
our house
            my house

the house i left behind
the house i ran away from

every space in this house
speaks of my father

the surfaces smell of his cemented hat soaked in sweat
the roof heats up like the burnt skin of his cheeks
the tiled floors slip like his glasses off his nose

the walls have the callused texture of his dried hands like sandpaper

every door frames his pout
his lower lip pushed forward
every window reflects the assiduity of his gaze

the empty depth in the black of his eyes

for twenty years i watched my father build this house

creating his life’s work
in the language of men

                                    who were forced
to cut their tongues

                                                                        hang them in the wind
like cautionary tales

                                                                                                on sugarcane stalks (“twenty years of brick”)

From Montreal-based multi-disciplinary artist, education, community-arts facilitator, performer and literary translator Kama La Mackerel comes their long-awaited debut, ZOM-FAM (Montreal QC: Metonymy Press, 2020), a book of unfolding questions, innovations and performances. Comprised of eight extended poem-performances that explore the past and the possibility of positive ways forward, ZOM-FAM is a flourish of lyric monologues examining family, family history; it is a book of gender and social structures and expectations, writing out a history of birth, rebirth, affirmation and resistance. “in 1986,” they write, as part of the extended “twenty years of brick,” “my parents absolve themselves from plantation heritage / signing themselves into a lifetime of repayment / their consent redeeming ancestral bonds // they buy a piece of land on which leans / a room / an outdoors toilet / an outdoors kitchen / formerly the residence of bann domestik / servants, on the edge of white people property [.]” The poems here are expansively performative and very physical, stretching out the possibilities of narrative flourish through the lyric, writing on race and gender, and notions of identity around colonization and the body. There is such an energy to this collection, and a performance that comes clearly through and across the page. As part of a 2020 interview posted online at Room magazine, conducted by Amber Dawn, Mackerel responds:

I wrote about Mauritius from a very specific context, which is the context in which I grew up, through the lens of family history. I think there are many ways of being Mauritian and there are multiple ways of writing Mauritius. Mine is just one narrative of the island.

In writing the family history, I was definitely interested in exploring the relationship between the personal and the political. I wanted to write about the multiple ways in which the colonial regime slipped into the intimacies of the family home. Ultimately, my family and I experienced colonial violence as an experience and not as a historical, theoretical or intellectual concept.

I was also keenly aware that I was writing this book from the vantage point of being an immigrant in Canada, one who had gone to university and who was writing a book about Mauritius in English, in an imperial language! So I wanted to create a pastiche of image-making that was grounded in everydayness: with everyday objects and everyday rituals of the island. I wanted to bring the smaller details of the quotidian to life.

In doing so, the use of Kreol and other hybrid, Mauritian linguistic “quirks” became increasingly relevant. Within the language itself, and the ways in which language is deployed in ZOM-FAM, I wanted to honour the ancestral and colonial languages that were part of my upbringing, the mixture of Kreol, English, French, Bhohpuri, Tamil, Hindi etc. I think of those two lines, for example:

kolez sin zozef
established by the Frères des Écoles Chrétiennes (p 54)

Within the span of two lines there are three languages being activated— exploring language in such a distinctive and hybrid way allowed me to create a poetic space that captures the cosmopolitanism of Mauritius as an island.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Joel Robert Ferguson

Joel Robert Ferguson is a poet of working-class settler origins. His first book, The Lost Cafeteria, was published in 2020 by Signature Editions, and his writing has recently appeared in Confluence Magazine, EVENT, The Malahat Review, Riddle Fence, Queen's Quarterly, and Train Journal. Born and raised in the Nova Scotian village of Bible Hill, Ferguson now lives in Winnipeg, Treaty 1 Territory, with his partner and their three cats.

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

Publishing my first book felt great. It was something I’d worked at for years and it was an amazing experience to see it come together. That said, it hasn’t changed my life too much; a small part of me was worried that once The Lost Cafeteria was published I would find myself running out of things to write about, but the opposite has been true.

A lot of the poetry in my first book could best be described as “coming of age” poetry, whereas the poetry I’m working on these days feels a lot more focused on the external world and less about figuring out who I am as a person and a writer. Whether that’s a good or bad thing, I’m not really sure yet.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
In a way I was primed for poetry from an early age, as my mother is a poet and ran a literary journal out of our dining room for much of my childhood. I sometimes try to write prose with the intent of publishing, but as my process of thinking and writing is disjointed I always seem to come back around to poetry as it seems best disposed to messy thought.

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?
It can vary widely- occasionally a poem will come to me and not really need any changes (I think of these as “freebies” and they don’t really feel like I had much of a role in writing them). Far more often though I’ll be making edits on a poem off and on for years without ever feeling like the piece is truly finished.

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?
I’m the sort who mostly just wanders around, bumping into life until a poem knocks loose. Once I have a couple dozen or so poems, I start to get a better idea of what a book-length project would look like, and my writing starts to bend towards that end.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Public readings can sometimes be a part of the process for me, in particular listening to other people’s poetry can give me ideas for new experiments writing my own writing. I do enjoy doing readings, but it's a fraught enjoyment that’s bracketed by hours of low-key anxiety.

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 question of how to exist within a community without losing one’s selfhood to it underlies a lot of my writing. I grew up in a fairly hardcore Evangelical Christian family/church/town, so 20th century issues like the individual versus coercive societal forces still mean a lot to me.

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 think that writers ought to be able to inhabit a plethora of roles, e.g., I think it’s important that there are plenty of writers eloquently and effectively addressing issues of politics and social justice, as well as poets writing about life on a smaller, more human and day-to-day scale. Ultimately, to paraphrase Karl Ove Knausgaard, I think that the only absolute responsibility placed upon writers should be to avoid being boring or redundant.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Often useful but never difficult. I’m always bouncing new poems off friends, both poets and non-poets, and making changes based on their responses. For The Lost Cafeteria, the manuscript was going through an editorial process with Signature Editions at about the same time that my thesis supervisor was helping me get it ready to be defended as my MA thesis... I found all of this editorial advice from different sources to be really helpful in understanding the collection better and making changes to both its structure and to individual poems that made the whole thing more cohesive.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
During my first encounters with John Ashbery’s work, Winnipeg poet Colin Smith helped me wrap my head around what Ashbery was doing by suggesting I look at his poems as a series of solid images within ephemeral framing. This has been an approach I’ve kept since in my own writing, starting off with a few clear images and finding ways that are expressive and revealing to move between them.

10 - 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 didn’t have much of a routine even before COVID, and less so now. I tend to do most of my editing in the afternoon though, and work on new poems at night.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Long, directionless walks around the city are usually a great help of course, but also reading & rereading particular poets for new approaches and ways of seeing- lately Karen Solie’s and August Kleinzahler’s work has been really useful for me.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Pine cones and Nag Champa incense.

13 - 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 had a big influence on my writing. Some of my first attempts at poetry came as a result of listening to Sleaford Mods on repeat while stuck in a janitorial job I wasn’t happy in. Similarly, movies are a major point of reference for me and allusions to them find their way into my poetry frequently; one of the poems I most recently wrote is all about the Terry Gilliam movie Twelve Monkeys in the context of COVID-19.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Thomas Hardy, James Baldwin, A.F. Moritz, Roberto Bolano, George Oppen, Seamus Heaney, Stefan Zweig, Charles Simic, Donato Mancini, Thom Gunn, Susan Sontag, Inger Christensen, J.H. Prynne, Tomas Transtromer

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I wish I could travel, a sentiment that many folks share right now I’m sure. I haven’t seen much of the world, so that will be a priority when it becomes feasible to do so again.

16 - 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?
Probably a long-haul truck driver; I’ve always been drawn to the overlooked spaces between communities.

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
The desire for knowledge. I wouldn’t be able to understand myself and the world the small amount that I do without articulating my thoughts in writing.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich, an oral history made up of interviews of women who served in the Soviet Red Army in World War 2. It’s an incredible achievement, pulling together hundreds of individual narratives to create something right in the ellipses’ edge of what literature can say about human experience. I haven’t seen too many movies lately, but one that stands out is Memories of Murder, one of Bong Joon-Ho’s early films.

19 - What are you currently working on?
These days I’m working on/editing/shopping around the manuscript for a second poetry collection that I’m calling Cold Pastoral, which I’m treating as a sort of extended interrogation of the bucolic literary tradition and its continued influence upon how the rural is imagined.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;