Sunday, October 31, 2021

Tracy Fuad, about:blank



If you have your arms crossed in two weeks.
If there is a cursor hovering over your chin.
If in a language that does not interest me.

If you have passed with two weeks.
If you have a seat on your floor.

If in a language that is not relevant to me.
If you go for two weeks.

If a sitting is on the ground.
If I have a link in a language.

If you go for two weeks.
If the sitting is on the ground.

If I have a language in a language.

Selected by Claudia Rankine as winner of the Donald Hall Prize for Poetry is Berlin-based American poet Tracy Fuad’s full-length poetry debut, about:blank (Pittsburgh PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2021), a collection of lyric collisions, fragments and fractures through language, the internet and Kurdish ruin. The granddaughter of a Kurdish immigrant to the United States, Fuad composed much of the collection during two years spent teaching English in Kurdistan, as she responds as part of a July 2021 interview conducted by Helena de Groot for the podcast Poetry Off the Shelf: “I was aware that I was Kurdish from a young age, but there was no one really to talk to that about. Because I do think I really, in a way that was quite intended, was raised as a white American. You know, my parents were quite intentional about giving me and both of my brothers very American names because they knew we already had a foreign last name. So, I think a lot of my story is a story of my father’s assimilation and then the next generation sort of uncovering that history. And finding out your relationship to it.”

There is an openness and a curiosity, as well as an expansiveness, to the text of about:blank, one composed through a combination of self-contained poems against fragments, sketches and short lists, all of which interplay into the larger scope of this intricately-shaped book-length interplay between language and culture, ancient sites and technology. From the core of seeking her own relationship to her family’s history, Fuad writes an excavation of cultural and personal spaces and historic landscapes through short sketches and longer examinations. “Applied to a job in Kurdistan,” she writes, as part of “Considering the Unit of the Day,” “Considered whether I wanted the job or wanted to want it / Considered the difference between these; its shape, dimension, texture / Searched for images of reverse sandwiches throughout duration of this consideration [.]” In many ways, this is a collection shaped around conversation, whether between ideas, cultures or languages, writing of the seemingly-contradictory reality of locals with smartphones roaming ancient hillsides. She writes of placement and ruin, and the long shadow of history, as the poem “Report of the Excavation at Tell Sitak” offers: “The ruins here were further ruined by recent war and roots of oak, / but still, beneath remains of modern bombs, the dig reveals a fortress built by the Assyrians: / defensive walls of stone and three stone towers; / a courtyard floor incised with flowers; / baked bricks, a kiln, and iron slags; / in a threshold, three jars of living earth, each large enough to hold a child; / a fragment of a tablet pressed with wedges, / a record of the sale of seven people and a field. / Even then, this land was bought and sold.”

about:blank is an extremely smart book, and Fuad’s curiosity is as engaging as it is engaged, all the more impressive when one considers this her full-length debut. As part of one of a cluster of poems, each of which are titled “Object,” she writes: “you know that labor always means / a compromise and art is always thieving / for the folding of one’s authentic thinking [.]” Further in the same podcast interview, she responds:

Tracy Fuad: Well, I mean, I think it’s impossible not to romanticize Kurdistan, because this is the cradle of civilization. And there are people in Kurdistan still living the way the earliest humans lived, or, of course, you know, not so different, but with smartphones.

Helena de Groot: Right. (LAUGHS)

Tracy Fuad: But still tending sheep, and a semi-nomadic life, moving up to the mountains in the summer for the sheep to graze. And this is where sheep were domesticated more or less, and where crops were domesticated, more or less. So there is really this sense of being in contact with the ancient. And I was living in a town called Ranya, which is about two hours north of Sulaymaniyah, not so far from the Iraq–Iran border. So it’s right in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains. And there are many, many archeological sites there. So there is a plane and then there will be mounds of dirt. And these mounds of dirt are what’s left of very ancient 3000-, 4000-, 5000-year-old civilizations. You know, it’s just in the dirt, someone pulls out this piece of glass, and it’s a 5000-year-old bracelet.

Helena de Groot: Wow.

Tracy Fuad: And so you can’t help but feeling in contact with something very ancient. And Kurds themselves, although most of them don’t live in villages anymore, the romanticized village life is very deeply a part of Kurdish identity. So, I’m so drawn to that. And then at the same time, you know, you might still want something that you can’t find there, and, “How can I get this?” So you’re always already embedded in this society that you’ve been born into, even if you’re yearning for or longing for a past that never really existed, that’s always, you know, being constructed by us to fit our imagined nation’s needs.

Saturday, October 30, 2021

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Kate Camp

Kate Camp was born and lives in Wellington, New Zealand. She is the author of six collections of poetry and the recipient of all New Zealand's major literary awards. Camp is also an essayist, a memoirist, and a literary commentator, known for Kate's Klassics, a nationally syndicated radio program on classic literature that has been running on Radio New Zealand for twenty years. Camp's work has appeared in many journals at home and internationally, including Landfall and Sport (New Zealand), HEAT (Australia), Brick (Canada), Arc Poetry Magazine (Canada), Akzente (Germany), Qualm (England), and Poetry (U.S.). She works at Te Papa, New Zealand''s national museum. How to Be Happy Though Human: New and Selected Poems (Anansi, 2021), is Kate Camp's seventh book of poetry and the first to be published outside New Zealand.

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

My first book made me feel I could call myself a poet – it gave me a sense of legitimacy and of taking my own creative work seriously. I was in my early twenties when the book was written, some of the poems were written while I was at university – it feels like a very long time ago now. Doing the selected poems is the first time I’ve looked back on those early poems for a long time – since when the book came out really. I’m surprised to find that I still like some of the poems, and I can see a throughline to my work now.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
My mother was an English teacher who always recited poetry to us – she has an incredible amount of poetry committed to memory. I think the musicality, the power, and the humour of poetry – the wordplay – all appealed to me. I did a creative writing workshop where you had to do both fiction and poetry, but my fiction was always thinly veiled memoir, and wasn’t very good. I just think I have a mind that works in images, in snapshots, in details, and that all fits with the lyric practice of poetry.

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’m almost embarrassed to say that almost every poem I’ve written, I’ve written and largely finished in an hour. I write a lot of poems or would-be poems that I throw away, so it’s not like every hour I spend at the computer yields a poem, but my practice is to sit down once a week, read poetry for an hour, then write poetry from an hour. I’ve been in this routine for 15+ years now and it works for me. Then I’ll workshop the poem with my writing group, often that same night on Facebook video chat – and then make edits and it’s done.

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?
I’m never working on a book. For me each poem is a discrete, singular piece, it’s only later I might notice themes or commonalities.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love doing readings, though I don’t do that many. But when I do I really enjoy them. I lived in Berlin for a year in 2011 and seeing how people read over there has changed my reading style. I used to chat a lot and explain things – probably too much. Now I just get up and read, and don’t tend to say much. It’s more like a musical performance. I have more faith in the listener to be able to engage without me building a bridge for them.

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 for me it always comes back to, what is the point of life, since we die and there’s no God and then, isn’t life so incredibly precious and unlikely, especially given we die and there’s no God. I think I write as a mystically inclined atheist, that’s probably why I love the poem Dover Beach so much, because it’s about loss of faith, and an enduring sense of meaning and wonder, and because my mother loves it too.

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?
Pass – not much to say on this one.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I love working with editors but I don’t get very much active editing (like, copy editing) being a poet. It tends to be more about what poems to leave in or take out.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Write what only you know – my first creative writing teacher Damien Wilkins said this and it’s still a touchstone. Take care of the sound and let the sense take care of itself – Christian Bok. I have this on the wall above my desk. And then the advice to myself that’s always on my wall – KEEP THE FAITH. It’s there to remind me that I shouldn’t focus on whether I’m writing something good, or something that’s worth keeping, I just need to write for my designated writing time, and trust that eventually something will happen.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to essays)? What do you see as the appeal?
It’s been really enjoyable writing essays, because I get to do lots of editing which is something that I love to do, but generally doesn’t take that long with a poem. A day of reading aloud and editing is so much more fun than the hard work of writing. The fact that I read my essays aloud to edit is probably a reflection of my poet self – for me the rhythm and sound of language is absolutely crucial.

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?
Covered this earlier.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Writing exercises. At the moment I am using the ones on Poets and Writers: The Time Is Now.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Oh god so many! Feijoas – a fruit that only New Zealanders seem to eat. The air in New Zealand has a particular smell, the smell of the New Zealand bush. The smell of my own pillow when I wake up in the morning. The sense of smell is really important to me and often comes up in my writing.

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?
Music, and song lyrics in particular, were probably the greatest influence on my poetic development as a child and young adult – Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles, top 40 music of the 1970s – I still find John Denver’s Country Roads very beautiful. The music, the longing, the emotion in songs, and also the cleverness and wordplay have been really formative.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Mark Doty is a poet I absolutely love. Same with Mary Oliver, even though our work is not at all akin. The most important writers to me personally are the members of my poetry group, we have been workshopping together for 17 years and they are interwoven so deeply into my poetic practice: Marty Smith, Stefanie Lash, Maria McMillan, Hinemoana Baker and Tusiata Avia. All are amazing poets published here in New Zealand.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d love to write a novel, but I don’t think I can or ever will. Ditto learn to play the guitar. In terms of things I might actually do, finishing and publishing the memoir collection I’m currently working on is number one.

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 have a full time job as well as being a writer, which is as Head of Marketing and Communications at New Zealand’s national museum, Te Papa, so I already have ended up doing something else! I can easily imagine myself having become a teacher like my mother, or even a lawyer like my father, if I was hardworking enough. Any job that revolves around words and people I would probably be quite well suited to.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Even as a young child I always had the urge to, and I always knew that I was good at it. No doubt it comes from my mother’s love of poetry, literature and reading which she passed on to us.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The Bone Clocks David Mitchell. Why did I wait so long to read it??? Don’t read the blurb or any reviews as they will have huge spoilers (I am very spoiler sensitive).  Last film I enjoyed was the New Zealand film Cousins. I’ve just re-watched all of the Netflix House of Cards – I am obsessed with American politics – and despite the last season which is rather silly, I still find it brilliant.

20 - What are you currently working on?
A collection of memoir essays, not an autobiography, but looking at recurring motifs in my childhood and early life in particular – topics include cigarettes, grandparents’ houses, bad boyfriends, and music.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Friday, October 29, 2021

Post-glacial: The Poetry of Robert Kroetsch, selected with an introduction by David Eso


            Kroetsch’s errant career in poetry is characterized by slow-moving divergences and a focus on place (shaped and shaping). For these reasons, I suggest “post-glacial” as an alternative to the classification “postmodern.” A term borrowed from geography, post-glacial refers to the Holocene (the past ten thousand years and counting), the present moment (despite the continued presence of high-altitude glaciers), and equally to an indeterminate future period (a possible future wherein no glaciers remain). Post-glacial refigures in spatiotemporal terms postmodern concepts such as trace, spectre, or the presence of absence—concepts promoted by Jacques Derrida and others. “Trace,” in its postmodern sense, means that the past is never past. Drumlins, erratics, eskers, and even the flatness of the great plains are the visible work of Pleistocene ice sheets. That past haunts the present through the presence of year-round ice high up in the Rocky Mountains. These are post-glacial times we live in, although some glaciers remain. Past is now. Future arrives ahead of time. Glaciers do not melt. Ice melts. Glaciers retreat, recreating the land that remains always subject to revision. Similarly, the voices of the poet’s parents recur with increasing clarity, posthumously. Another parallel: the great literary traditions of history survive in Kroetsch’s work—quest, romance, satire—through subversive response to the weight of those inherited items. (David Eso, “Introduction”)

Given the pre-pandemic and pandemic distractions around these parts, I’m only just now seeing Post-glacial: The Poetry of Robert Kroetsch, selected with an introduction by David Eso and an afterword by Aritha van Herk (Waterloo ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2019), produced as part of the series of critical selected poem volumes in the Laurier Poetry Series. It is important that a poet such as the late Robert Kroetsch is assessed and reassessed, not only through his work but our relationship to such, given he is and was such a large presence across Canadian literature, and for so many years. Over the past few years alone, we’ve seen broad reassessments of Kroetsch’s work, thanks to Dennis Cooley’s book-length critical work, The Home Place: Essays on Robert Kroetsch's Poetry (Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2016) as well as the collection Robert Kroetsch: Essays on His Works, edited by Nicole Markotić (Toronto ON: Guernica Editions, 2017), as now Victoria, British Columbia poet and critic David Eso has put together this new critical selected that focuses on the “poet” aspect of Kroetsch’s work, examining the late tall tale theorist and storyteller through the lens of his poetic output. As Eso’s introduction offers, writing on Kroetsch’s engagement with the long poem: “A broadening identification with Western Canadian geography and dialect had combined productively with a deepening understanding of deconstructive poetics vis-à-vis the international postmodernism explored by Foucault, Said, and Spanos. Through these paired phenomenological and theoretical influences, Kroetsch uncovered the endlessly expansive form in which he would excel—the long poem.” There is an irony to examining Kroetsch as the poet of the long poem through such as small assemblage of pieces, and yet, Kroetsch was the master of a “long poem” that was, in many ways, less a singular, extended unit than an assemblage of multiple, moving and even constantly-newly-incorporated parts. The further he wrote, the larger the shape of what would become his life-long poem would seem. Readers would ask: Is that it? Is there no more? And Kroetsch would answer that the project was complete, and there would be no more. And then there would be more. Wasn’t that the wry joke of “Completed,” through his Completed Field Notes (Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2000)?

As well as selecting from his more formal collections of poems, there are more than a couple of wayward Kroetsch offerings included here, including from his 2009 Wrinkle Press chapbook, The Lost Narrative of Mrs. David Thompson / Ten Simple Questions for David Thompson, his long out-of-print disOrientation chapbook, Revisions of Letters Already Sent (1993) and his 2011 Greenboathouse Press chapbook, Writer’s Block [see my review of such here], although neither his above/ground press title, Further to Our Conversation (2011), nor his The New World And Finding It (Salt Spring Island BC : mother tongue press, 1999) see mentions here. I’ve long thought that these assembled chapbook titles, none of which fell into any of his other published collections, would have made (and still can) an interesting stand-alone poetry title, as all easily fit into the container of Kroetsch’s “Field Notes.” Eso also includes a few other “lost” poems, such as a poem that appeared in The Rocky Mountain Outlook on June 30, 2011, and another, “Tourist from Toronto,” from an issue of James Reaney’s alphabet (1967); Eso’s engagement with the outliers make for an interesting perspective, not solely focused on Kroetsch’s singular, life-long poem that eventually formed as Completed Field Notes and subsequent titles, The Hornbooks of Rita K. (University of Alberta Press, 2001), The Snowbird Poems (University of Alberta Press, 2004) and Too Bad: Sketches Toward a Self-Portrait (University of Alberta Press, 2010). Elsewhere, I’ve argued that The Hornbooks of Rita K. was Kroetsch’s first overt expansion beyond the boundaries of what seemed to be a catch-all of his ongoing “Field Notes,” and it was only the structure of his subsequent collection, The Snowbird Poems, that brought The Hornbooks, as well as itself, into the structure of those “Field Notes.” As Eso examines Kroetsch’s approach, and argues the ways in which Kroetsch’s poetry and poetics were formed, shaped and evolved, it does seem, as much, that Eso has provided verification that everything Kroetsch wrote, at least through his poetry, fall within the bounds of that endless, boundless shape of “Field Notes.” Would a subsequent volume of poetry, containing everything Kroetsch wrote and published, be called, therefore, Absolute Field Notes? Infinite Field Notes? What is more complete than complete?

Sounding the Name

In this poem my mother is not dead.
The phone does not ring that October
morning of my fourteenth year.

The anonymous voice on the phone

does not say, Call Arthur to the phone.
our hired man, a neighbour’s son, quiet,
unpretentious, a man from the river hills

near our farm, does not turn from phone,

he does not say, seeming to stress the time,
Your mother died at ten o’clock. My sister and I
do not look at each other, do not smile,

assuring each other (forever) that words are

In this poem my mother is not dead,
she is in the kitchen, finishing the October
canning. I am helping in the kitchen.

I wash the cucumbers. My mother asks me
to go pick some dill. The ducks are migrating.
I forget to close the garden gate.


Thursday, October 28, 2021

Christine Shan Shan Hou, the joy and terror are both in the swallowing



            (after Françoise Gilot)

I imagine killing all the ants in my apartment with my smallest vibrator
I make them dance and shake, give them little seizures
Like my body when I come.

Submission is easiest when done alone.
I identify more with a doormat than a goddess.

A misfit cumulus cloud reaches its fingers upward
Towards a larger network of clouds

In hopes of landing a new job in the cloudy marketplace.
Networking is what you make of it.

You can be the woman who says yes or the woman who says no.
I don’t expect to see leopard prints on young women

But when I do I make a run for it.
The survival rate is higher for those who don’t react in ugly situations

But I am not afraid of death or the little bruises I pick up along the way.
I can get down naked on all fours and be the woman who says yes

Even though I am the woman who says no.

I’ve been very taken with what After Hours Editions, a relatively new small literary press [see their periodicities essay here], has been offering, most recently Brooklyn, New York poet and artist Christine Shan Shan Hou’s full-length the joy and terror are both in the swallowing (New York/Kingston NY: After Hour Editions, 2021). Set in seven grouped sections of first-person lyric narratives, her poems are sharp and direct, rife with lessons and humour, and a confidence that occasionally swings toward swagger. I’m charmed by the longer stretches, and the section of short bursts of haiku, such as the poem “BATH,” that offers: “The internet is / a place to live your fiction / in a heart-shaped tub [.]” Hers are lively poems that seek and search and hold great truths; attentive, and writing out through tales, fables, study and story, and the results of her explorations so far. “I stare into a lightbox / to study pure happiness,” she writes, as part of the poem “SUNDAY AFTERNOON.” Later, in the same short piece, offering: “This is a fable about the lengths to which / I will go to become my most enlightened self [.]” Her poems are smart, even cheeky, revealing and revelatory. “After the physical therapist said that the pain is mostly in my head,” she writes, to open the poem “SOME FACTS ABOUT MYSELF,” “my arm has been hurting less. // That is the power men have on my psyche.” Her poems are awash in facts and story, and how each one impacts upon the other, holding sway or shades of truth; composed neither around the hero nor the action of the fable, but as one who attempts to understand the wider landscape. “I wonder if needlepointing is what / Keeps one well-rounded,” she asks, as part of “AWAKENING YOURSELF,” “If an airplane falls from the sky / Who will catch it?”