Thursday, June 30, 2022

Sina Queyras, Rooms: Women, Writing, Woolf


I reached up and into her sentences as though I were being pulled out of gravity because, for the first time in my life, I was encountering writing that felt organically similar to what was happening inside my mind – but, to be clear, I was not at all in control of the thoughts, or the words; my thoughts were broken here and there with clichés and fawning. Sentimentality was possible. Yes, she was sections of them all, and they were sections of her. ‘We are shaped by time and tide,’ I wrote, ‘exposed to the elements.’ I quoted directly from The Waves: ‘I have lived a thousand lives already. Every day I unbury – I dig up. I find relics of myself in the sand that women made thousands of years ago’ (127). I allowed more guessing about who, or what, Woolf was.
Of course, the question really being asked here was, who am I? (“Prologue”)

Montreal writer, editor and critic Sina Queyras’ latest title is Rooms: Women, Writing, Woolf (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2022), a book-length essay/memoir that works through the author’s reading of Virginia Woolf, and how an early introduction to Woolf’s work offered them a way not only out but through an upbringing punctuated by abuse, poverty, loss and trauma. As Queyras’ writes early on: “It’s almost true that I have published only a handful of short stories and one novel – one that experimental novelists might argue is conventional and conventional novelists might describe as experimental – but I have, like Woolf (although certainly not at the same level as Woolf), studied, read, written, critiqued, and thought about writing across genres for more than thirty years. / Is that enough to convince myself that I might have something to say about Virginia Woolf?” Rooms: Women, Writing, Woolf is an essay on influence, an essay on Virginia Woolf and a memoir of trauma, offering the details of how Queyras “got here from there”; how a discovery of Woolf’s work early on allowed them an example of how to lift beyond a dark history, and literally write themselves into the possibility of something else. “How did people who survived such trauma ever achieve smoothness in their lives? Equanimity? How did people who didn’t assume for themselves the right to safety, achieve safety, let alone perceive themselves as having a voice? As writers? Artists? Anything beyond a basic survival mode? It was bullshit. How could you tell your story if your story wasn’t one the world wanted to hear?”

Queyras writes of their reading and post-secondary experiences, of their relationships. They write of reading and experiencing the work of Adrienne Rich and Toni Morrison, Constance Rooke and Evelyn Lau, Jane Rule and Sylvia Plath; of academia, gender, sexuality and violence, and of linearity, writing on Woolf as figure, influence, possibility, anchor and example. “Lau wanted – and deserved – a literary career,” Queyras writes, describing a Constance Rooke reading and post-reading conversation during their time at the University of Victoria, and hearing the audience of predominantly older women tut-tut what they were hearing about Lau’s then-forthcoming memoir, Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid (HarperCollins, 1989), “and the way she found a book contract and entry into literature was by dragging herself through the streets and living to tell about it. Isn’t this why Sylvia Plath published The Bell Jar under a pseudonym? Because she saw that story as something not yet transformed? Too close to the bone? Something other than literature? Is this the women’s literature we’ve been fighting for?” Queyras writes of working and feeling through form and the difficulty of being present. They write of being transformed.

            The text itself made me. It demanded a response. But it also literally made me.
And that is no small thing. Again and again, whenever I lose my way, I go back to Woolf. I go back to her texts and realign myself. Bring all the folds of my being into the work. I go back to the sentences that appear to contain while trajectories – subtle and extensive – and look up into them. I feel a complicated lineage. They appear before me like cathedrals and street maps, like soft spaces to settle, like flares, sent up in moments of anguish and adoration, lighting a path I can always go down. They appear like furrows of joy I might harvest. They appear like girders, vertical and reeking of futures Woolf herself could not have foreseen.

Queyras writes of an ongoing fight for space, and attempting writing not simply as a mode for thinking and responding but one through which best to experience and live. In Why Must a Black Writer Write About Sex? (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1994), referencing his infamous debut, How To Make Love To a Negro (Without Getting Tired) (Coach House Books, 1987), Dany Laferrière wrote of how he wrote that first novel to “save his life.” This is “no small thing,” as Queyras well knows, and they centre their third poetry collection, Lemon Hound (Coach House Books, 2006) as the beginning of where they wished to exist as a writer; the collection that first achieved what they were aiming for (and allowing all else to follow). Through the precise sentences of Rooms: Women, Writing, Woolf, Queyras writes of the failures and attempts, the stumbles and missteps, and how Woolf remained an anchor through the worst of it. “It had been my intention to follow in Woolf’s footsteps – a ridiculous desire,” they write, early in Chapter One, “because of my impoverished education and the fact that essay writing has always been a challenge. But journalism, of a kind, and speaking to the common reader, have always been goals (as well as my first writing experience). Creatively, I wanted to try it all: write plays, novels, and essays, not only poetry. I fell, however, not to essays, but blog posts, and those devolved further into tweets. I meant to write more novels but wrote only one before I was caught up – for better and worse – in parenting and the business of a creative writing department. Or, with capital-S Service and Patriarchy.” Through Women, Writing, Woolf, Queyras writes on the pull and possibility, the destructive nature of rooms; finally able to remove themselves from one before even able to entertain another; they write on exactly what proponents of literature offer as the best example of what reading can offer: the transformative possibilities of the experience.

            It isn’t until I say this out loud that I realize this is one thing I am trying to make clear in this book. the way that there can seem to  be no exit at all from the trauma of the body. That it is ongoing. That we have all accepted this, not only for us, but for our children. And for our students. And that the room can be a place that keeps us apart from ourselves and the world. The room can easily become a closed door. A locked place. A prison of our own devising, or our own resignation, and that we have to get out.

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Cynthia Good

Cynthia Good is an award-winning poet, journalist, and former TV news anchor. She has written six books including Vaccinating Your Child, which won the Georgia Author of the Year award. She has launched two magazines, Atlanta Woman and the nationally distributed PINK magazine for women in business. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in journals including Adanna Journal, Awakenings, Book of Matches, Brickplight, Bridgewater International Poetry Festival, Cutthroat, Free State Review, Full Bleed, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Hole in the Head Review, Main Street Rag, Maudlin House Review, MudRoom, Outrider Press, OyeDrum Magazine, The Penmen Review, Pensive Journal, Persimmon Tree, Pier-Glass Poetry, Pink Panther Magazine, Poydras, South Shore Review, The Ravens Perch, Reed Magazine, Tall Grass, Terminus Magazine, They Call Us, and Voices de la Luna and Willows Wept Review, Semi-Finalist: The Word Works 2021, among others. Her new chapbook, What We Do With Our Hands, is published by Finishing Line 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?

              My first book Words Every Child Must Hear improved my life because the research for it and writing of it taught me tons about how to raise my young child. My current focus on poetry is entirely different than anything I have published in the past. My previous and continuing nonfiction work has been externally focused, with specific goals i.e. helping women advance in business, in contrast to poetry, which for me is about interiority and the possibility of expressing and communicating what words alone cannot convey.

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

              I am a communicator. After graduating from UCLA I set out to find an on-air job reporting the news, thinking I could have some positive impact on the world by shining a light on what was happening.

              Poetry is different. I turned to poetry when I felt bombarded by mainstream media at a time when the structures in my life were falling apart; my marriage of 25 years, my home bulldozed, my children graduating from college and moving on, my mother dying. In five weeks time, I became divorced, was forced out of my home and buried my mother. I realized that many of the belief systems I had learned and relied on didn’t apply any longer. I felt immersed in a media culture that rarely addressed the things that consumed me and tore me apart every day. It was extremely alienating. But then, there was poetry, waiting for me all along, a way to express experiences for which there are no words. I had discovered an entire language and realized I wasn’t going crazy. It was such a gift. I believe poetry saved my life, and continues to save me again and again.

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 is organic, sometimes fast… words pouring out like a geyser. Other times not so much. Sometimes a poem will take ages to finish; most never make it out of the initial word doc. Others, on occasion, practically write themselves. I carry a small notebook in my bag, if not I will write on scraps of paper, napkins and coffee shop receipts. Ideally I’ll write in a larger notebook I keep at the house and once I move what I’ve written to the computer I cross it out on the handwritten page.

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?

              For me poetry is not something that is strategic. The work dictates the process. So as themes come together and a larger project takes shape then that’s interesting.

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

              Readings are a lot of fun. Poems seem different to me when read aloud because of the sound, as well as the energy and the ears in the room. The poems themselves change a bit and maybe come more alive.

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?

              For me poetry is about the questions. Sometimes the poem inadvertently may answer a question I have. I may think I know how it’s supposed to end but the musicality of it falls flat… so I have to add something and there you have it.. a poem that says something entirely different than I intended or wanted, which is very exciting.

I have so many questions and somehow the chance to address these questions or just raise the issue, and or find a metaphor, makes it easier to tolerate not knowing the answer. Depending on where I am in my life, the questions are different; where to live, how to live, how to age, questions about death, why we are here and grappling with opposite extremes that often occur simultaneously.

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?

              In my journalistic work I feel a huge responsibility. For me journalism is a service. When it comes to poetry, it is much more selfish and freeing. I want it to be raw and honest. To me this is not some gift I am giving to the world. While I’ve been told my poems are empowering, this is not the motivation or goal. The objective is to be as truthful as I can, to avoid self-censorship. I think this is the space for the kind of poetry I am most attracted to. We are so good at hiding who we are and what we experience at a deeper level, that sometimes we even lose sight of ourselves. This  happened to me. There needs to be a place to go to read what is unfiltered and true for the speaker. That’s why I turn to poetry.

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

              To have a poetry community and an editor makes a huge difference. Usually I’m writing in a vacuum. It’s a very solitary thing. It is easy to lose objectivity. I owe a debit of gratitude to my poetry community and to my wonderful editor Travis Denton.

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

              Write like no one will ever read it.

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

              It’s still hard to avoid the reportorial default and this is something I worked on during my MFA at NYU and still work on; how to keep the facts and even the truth from interfering with art, interfering with what the poem wants to be.

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?

              A perfect day begins with espresso, music, reading something and writing for about 30 minutes. I like to save editing for later in the day or in the evening after a glass of wine. But also love to write when I’m alone at a restaurant, and of course whenever particularly moved to do so. I do write something nearly every day.

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

              Read anything long enough and I’m inspired. Or just simply wait till life happens, a text from my cousin David telling me that his sister-in-law died and a few days later his grandchild was born.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

              Other people’s colon and weed, because I rent out my home in Mexico and traces of the visitors always remain until the saltwater and mountain air washes them away. Rosemary, lavender and carnitas cooking.

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 live in Mexico near the ocean so there is the constant inspiration of water, waves, whales, witch moths! and storms, and the rich life and people in this community, the stone roads and sewage that sometimes runs through the streets, the barbed wire, the guava trees and sidewalks overflowing with bougainvillea.

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

              Adrienne Rich, Toi Derricotte, Jamaica Kincaid, Camille Dungy, Marie Howe, Catherine Barnett, Deborah Landau, Audre Lorde, and too many more to name. They are important to me because of their honesty, vulnerability and courage, and their exquisite grasp of language and playfulness with words and musicality.

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

              Everything. Travel the world, write about everything, and truly enjoy my one amazing life.

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 love to build, and had the chance to design a house in Mexico and before that a cabin in the north Georgia mountains near a waterfall. It’s a lot of fun to visualize something night after night, then turn it into something tangible. My brother does this too with a home he built on top of a red rock in Sedona, and our mother did it before  us, building on the cliffs in Pacific Palisades over PCH before anyone wanted that land. Oh and I love raising animals, chickens, goats, horses like my great grandparents did when they immigrated to the US from Russia to escape the war and antisemitism years ago.

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

              I don’t really have a choice in the matter. My longest and deepest relationship has been with the blank page. Throughout my life the page has been my best friend and confident, never once failing to be there for me.

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

              I just read Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility and Katie Kitamura’s Intimacies, which I loved. Last week I saw My Father’s Violin, which speaks to the power of art to transform relationships and lives.

20 - What are you currently working on?

              My first Chapbook, What We Do With Our Hands is available for order in April 2022 and comes out this summer.

              I’m continuing to write, edit and share my poems and taking a look at possible themes for another book. There is a full-length manuscript in the works as well.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Brandan Griffin, Impastoral



—flapping over hills in no human

what sings better
at this frequency
that spreads out mapping

and returns

nightswain guiding fruit
feeling about with sound edges
a farr off paperiness

a swarm

silenscreeching, from
ipsude dwon, i mean upside down
to ridesight up,


keys from my sonar
on the letters
the trees, the delicious frownflies


prickling births
on air glutted with sensewine,
fruit crooking me,

i go suckling after all species

why this one place that’s me
while the sououound
ripples and i

wripple in it, in faroff chimes

the city
is verywhere,
as much here

the pan frenzy fills my ears

and then no bat,
but visible audio
no shepheard

just remembrance, ocation, form

I am completely taken by the charming flips and phonetic twirls and twists of Sunnyside, New York poet Brandan Griffin’s full-length debut, Impastoral (Oakland CA: Omnidawn, 2022). There is such song in his ecopoetic, furthering a particular rich strain of ecological lyric that has rippled across Omnidawn publications for the length and breadth of my attention to their titles: book-length examinations of ecological possibility, articulating both the positive and negative, including indictments and responsibilities of humanity’s disruptive manner. Through the structure and content of his Impastoral, Griffin is reminiscent of the work of Brian Teare (who blurbs the back cover of the collection)[see my review of his latest here], composing moments as much physical upon the page as meditative. It’s hard not to see either Teare, or even the physicality of CAConrad [see my review of such here] through such poems as “SEW AGE TREAT MENT PLANT,” that includes:

assoon I try to thinkit itt quiets down to   unlit basin   no thinking
in writing how many drafts   chewd   cudded down below in
back   of the book where you don’t   you can’t look   has no back of

the back   of course I can speak straight   and then we’ll get somewhere
but the other places   th passage voids from itslef   frm th linear

get ddumped

As well, the use of twisted language is reminiscent of what Conan O’Brien said of the late Norm Macdonald’s work as part of Macdonald’s recent posthumously-released final comedy special, how Macdonald would deliberately mispronounce the occasional word during talk show appearances, aiming to keep listeners attentive, and even slightly off-balance. Griffin, on his part, appears to be less about off-putting or keeping one off-balance than to offer something further, extra; a way of offering a new sequence or element of shape or sound or meaning to extend possibility, as the poem “ANIMALS LIVES IN PLANT,” offers: “un / conscious leaves / on green yarn / the / yairn falls and floats up in / telepithy [.]” The sense of play begins with the visual, rippling out into meaning and sound, prompting both pause and propulsion in ways that echo, as well, elements of the late bpNichol, Montreal poet Erín Moure or even the possibility of created and/or mismashed wordplay of Paul Celan (or Lisa Robertson or George Herriman’s Krazy Kat): offering and adding and even layering both meaning and intent. The same poem, further down the page: “plant on table in front of books / blooks on / tlable / in twowo clusters of leaves gathering up // twu upclusters of leefeafing / turn faces / w their yellow streaks to me / next to me, to // winsundowlight [.]” There is such a delightful way that Griffin’s otherwise-mangle of deliberate misspellings is compelling, welcoming and utterly charming, bringing the reader into his song of true, central awareness. Despite my own upbringing in rural landscapes, it might be only through Griffin that I can finally be able to begin to understand. Or, as the final poem of the ten-stanza “PROBE” provides:

     Then I saw beyond this
froth of variables.
no I don’t quite see I have

a boundary. over
where I end, found that

I end. What to be, the strands
My directives

cauterized. Something crops up,
it’s beyond me.