Sunday, July 31, 2022

Dustin Pearson, A Season in Hell with Rimbaud: Poems


A Season in Hell with Rimbaud

I dreamt I was showing my brother around in Hell.
We started inside the house.
Everything was brown besides the white sheets

in the bedrooms. I let him look
outside the window, told him it was hottest there,

where the flames rolled against the glass,
as if a giant mouth were blowing them,

as if there were thousands caught in the storm,
pushing it onward with mindless running,

save a desperation for something else.

How had there been a house in Hell
and we invited with time to spend? Why was it

I hadn’t questioned how I got there? My brother
growing so tired from the heat, the sweating?

surely we could open the door, he said. Surely there’ll be
a breeze. Even seeing already, even burning himself

on the doorknob. His eyes turned back in his head
working his way to the bedrooms, straining

the sheets with his blistered hands, and though I knew the beds
weren’t for the rest of any body, I sat by and let him sleep.

The third full-length poetry collection by Tulsa, Oklahoma poet Dustin Pearson [see my 2018 ’12 or 20 questions’ interview with him here], following Millennial Roost (C&R Press, 2018) and A Family Is a House (C&R Press, 2019), is A Season in Hell with Rimbaud: Poems (Rochester NY: BOA Editions, 2022). Pearson writes of brothers, masculinity and borders, and of a fear and vulnerability that is deeply felt throughout the collection. “Hell is a state of mind I slipped into / years ago,” he offers, to open the poem “Regardless,” “tossing a red balloon / to my brother. Even then, // I’d never be able to do what he couldn’t. / I’d always fall short of what he could do. / I couldn’t convince myself // I went because I loved him.” There is such a sense of music and rhythm to these lyrics, such a sense of singing punctuated by trauma. Pearson’s narrator writes his brother and a dream of his brother, writing a journey through Hell and how he got there, seeking out a beloved sibling, and mourning a loss he refuses to let go of. “He was the first person who told me I stood out,” he writes, as part of “Pain on a Soft Surface,” “something my mother had tried to, lovingly, / make me feel, something my father denied / completely. I resigned myself to the idea. / In a man’s world, I’d never be anything, / even if I’d still be forced to compete.”

“Every body that hits the ground in Hell / will get up should they choose it.” Pearson writes, to open the poem “Lying Down,” “There’s plenty of death and destruction / but no dead.” Composed in six sections of narrative lyrics, the poems in Pearson’s A Season in Hell with Rimbaud: Poems are searching, desperate and impossible, and the lengths through which this narrator would travel. “I cast a wide net in Hell for my brother. / I was both the person who held the net / and the bait inside,” he writes, to open the poem “Hell’s Wide Net,” near the end of the collection, “my arms craning / back and throwing forward, letting / the string reel through my hands.”

Saturday, July 30, 2022

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Prathna Lor

Prathna Lor is the author of Emanations.

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

Not sure yet but so far refreshing and lifting. Publishing a book is like watching yourself from 5-10 years ago come onto the stage. Meanwhile you are in the present trying to figure out what to do.

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

I came to poetry via fiction, specifically through Woolf. In her work, each line is like a bent horizon and I’m always trying to figure out what is emerging.

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?

Slow, agonizing, and always surprising.

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?

Trying to write one poem continually, trying to say one thing, continually; always emerging though never fully glimpsed.

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

Yes, something happens between voice and text on and off the page – it is essential to be in the body of your own work, to live in the sound of your own voice as fully and boldly as possible.

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?

How can we hold onto each other at great distances?

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

Living beautifully, out of mind.

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

Essential and never difficult, in my experience, since a good editor (and I have been blessed in this regard), will always want the work to reach its potential.

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

Let others gift and receive you.

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?

It is complete chaos.

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


12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Pork bone, incense, lime leaf, dried persimmons.

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?

Just walking.

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

Anything I can get my hands on.

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


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

An intractable feeling or being bad at most everything else.

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

Liz Howard’s Letters in a Bruised Cosmos.

18 - What are you currently working on?

A novel.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Friday, July 29, 2022

Annick MacAskill, Shadow Blight


On the invention of the seasons

You can’t blame that part on the heaven &/or hell

For Hades hath no such fury

Nor Jove

But a woman can do anything in her pain

If she had to lose so the world would lose

First she tore at her hair

She beat her breast

Then she turned her rage to the black soil itself

& to the sheep like tufts of cloud

& the Sicilian shepherds w/ their felt caps

They say she broke the plows w/ her own hands

That in her sorrow the mother became the blight

Halifax poet Annick MacAskill’s latest—after No Meeting Without Body (Kentville NS: Gaspereau Press, 2018) [see my review of such here] and Murmurations (Gaspereau Press, 2020) [see my review of such here]—is Shadow Blight (Gaspereau Press, 2022), a book that works through, as the back cover offers, “the pain and isolation of pregnancy loss through the lens of classical myth. Drawing on the stories of Niobe—whose monumental suffering at the loss of her children literally turned her to stone—and others, this collection explores the experience of being swept away by grief and silenced by the world.” Shadow Blight opens with all potential and possible ghosts before drifting through a contemporary into a backdrop of mythological figures, writing the enormity of loss and the slow and sudden loss into and through the isolating realities of rage and grief. As the third and final stanza of the opening poem, “Swimming Upwards,” reads:

But April hosts its own—the ghost
of my due date, drifting
in the hypothetical—one silver week,

its arms outstretched—

From there MacAskill slips into citations of Ovid’s Metamorphosis, writing mothers and other changed figures from Greek myth, including Dryope (who went into labour while dragging a sacrificial bull by its horns) and Chloris (who was transformed into the deity Flora, and was said to have been the one to transform Adonis, Attis, Crocus, Hyacinthus and Narcissus into flowers), but focusing her attention on the figure of Niobe, who wept for the loss of her many children, all of whom had been killed by the Titan Leto as punishment for Niobe’s pride. As MacAskill’s poem “Delos” ends: “as when before the birth / her children weren’t living facts // but a cloudy possibility.” Miscarriage still seems a subject that sits in the shadows, away from open conversation, and the experience of losing a child would be isolating enough, even without so much silence attached. MacAskill attempts to not only write out the silences but through them. “body stubborn / blood slowing / limbs / already / turning / to rock,” she writes, to close the extended poem “Homeric Similie,” “mouth / wide / o / pen [.]”

There is a way that MacAskill writes her way through the threads of myth, utilizing the details of myth as a means to work her way through, beyond a simple retelling, is reminiscent, slightly, of North Georgia poet and editor Gale Marie Thompson’s Helen Or My Hunger (YesYes Books, 2020) [see my review of such here]. One should mention, also, American poet and translator Niina Pollari’s Path of Totality (Soft Skull Press, 2022) [see my review of such here], a collection that more overtly and directly writes “about the eviscerating loss of a child, the hope that precedes this crisis, and the suffering that follows.” In comparison, MacAskill writes not as diary but working through the portrait of such a loss through the lens of the stories of mythological Greek women. “But a woman can do anything in her pain,” she writes. Or, as the poem “First Snow” offers: “She scales // the choss, and on the way, ties Proserpine’s yellow ribbon / across the slim arm // of a spontaneous birch tree.”

At sixty-four pages, Shadow Blight isn’t a lengthy collection, but her lyric allows for an openness, an extension of line and phrase that stretches her phrases and sentences across multiple pages; perhaps Shadow Blight is less a collection than a single poem writing out an experience, pulled into and wrapped up as a lyric suite uniquely broken, collected and packed. “—o how beautiful / the poets make our catastrophes—” she writes, to close the poem “Dryope.” And yet, through the grief there is a kind of hope, examining the stories of mythological women and connecting them to her own experience, one that allows for the loss to become less isolating, and less singular. Stepping back, beyond myth, and bookending the collection to close is the short sequence “Miscarriage,” that includes:

on a Saturday in September
we waited in the ER      seven hours
where the thought that we might see you

puffed up my chest

the ultrasound was hazy
as unreality
because you were already out

ahead of me

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Ongoing notes: late July, 2022: Ryan Fitzpatrick’s ENGC86 + the Harbour Centre 5

I’ve always been fond of writing group and/or workshop chapbooks. Seymour Mayne used to produce annual chapbooks from his workshops at the University of Ottawa, going back to the 1970s, I believe; and I think Irving Layton produced at least one during his time at York University (around here somewhere I still have a copy that Robert Kroetsch handed me, produced by himself after a session at Sage Hill): a collection of poems by the various participants in that particular group. Recently, two different chapbook titles have landed on my doorstep (what I am saying here is: mail me copies of these things; I like these things and am open to discussing them), so I thought it might be fun to discuss them together:

Toronto ON: From Ryan Fitzpatrick’s ENGC86 Creative Writing: Poetry II, the spring 2022 class at the University of Toronto Scarborough comes The Girls Who Get It, Get It (Toronto ON: Block Party, June 2022). As Fitzpatrick’s “Foreword” offers:

At the beginning of the semester, I tasked this group of promising writers with the problem of the poetry project. In other words, I asked them to tell me what they wanted to write about and we’d hash out the how and the why together. We’d grapple with the three corners of a questionably drawn Venn diagram I threw up in the middle of a Zoom call. We’d concern ourselves with form as an extension of content and content as an extension of relation. We’d move from the problem of just how to approach the villanelle to the explosive narrative possibilities of a million internet forms. We’d occasionally ask the dreaded question “So What?” like someone was about to go down for elimination in the MasterChef kitchen. We’d move between narrative flows and imagistic surprise. Eventually we reached the oft repeated refrain “The girls who get it, get it” as a way around the complex and sometimes messy specificities of our poetry, because life is messy and not everyone will understand everything all the time, but you also have to have faith that what you write will find the audience who has been searching everywhere for the right words at the moment they needed them.

The collection includes writing from Isla McLaughlin, Mary Maliszewski, Shanti Dhoré, Catherina Tseng, Morgen Mulcaster, Regina Zhao, Timea James, Sonika Verma, Georgea Jourjouklis, Alexis Murrell, Kasthuri Kanesalingam, Uniekar Bacchus, Lamia Firasta, Rana Sulaman, Alexa DiFrancesco, Victoria Butler and Joseph Donato. “share that quote from / Maggie Nelson,” Isla McLaughlin writes as part of “is this what it means to be a girl online?,” “hope at least one / person recalls // your crying, it’s / intensity // continue to / suffer so loud [.]” “it’d be so sweet if things just stayed the same,” Alexa DiFrancesco writes, as part of “when mom is ukrainian,” “do you know who you are?” There is such a lovely mix of confidence, swagger and curiosity through the poems assembled here, each of them reaching out in their own ways into attempting to get a handle on writing, thinking and where this all goes. As much as anything, also, it is the range of styles that intrigues about this small collection. “But they’re not available at 11:50pm,” Lamia Firasta writes, in “Assignment: 11:59,” “When I am checking all my citations / And wondering if there’s an i in lowercase [.]” I am intrigued by the narrative leaps and associations of Sonika Verma’s “Kaleidoscope,” a piece that begins: “to this day my bank pin number is my middle school friend’s / birthday. every winter i bake a cheesecake the way a bakery which / i haven’t gone to in four years advised me to. my pajamas are a / worn-down shirt from high school volunteering of an event that / relocated.” Or the first half of Catherina Tseng’s “pear-shaped ladies,” a poem that includes some very sharp phrases and observations:

scar-slicked thighs stick to the bottom of the plastic chair,
twisting uncomfortably as white men walk with their asian
girlfriends. at starbucks a girl with small tits and sweat-stained

armpits browses for swimwear on amazon. her mid-range crop
top says that there is no ethical consumption under capitalism

as she clicks clicks clicks lrg tankini two-piece red women’s sexy
cute high-waist tie knot into the cart. body knows nothing. only

instinct and survival and potential and nerve. body is divine.
gooseflesh rises along roadmaps of stretch marks and cellulite,

charting rivers, climbing mountains, marking crossroads,
claiming territories. a god is just a baby.

I am hoping to see more work by these folk; I am curious to see where they might go. I also have an extra copy of this, if anyone is interested. Otherwise, check here.

Vancouver BC: I recently received a copy of the chapbook Brine (2022) by Vancouver’s Harbour Centre 5. I hadn’t been previously aware of this particular writing group, although I’m aware of at least two of their members (I interviewed Christina Shah through the “Six Questions” series, and both Shah (posted June 16, 2021) and Robbie Chesick (scheduled for August 23, 2022) have poems in the “Tuesday poem” series). As Shah’s opening poem, “dig in,” begins:

learn to become lignin
living, but stiff
the interdependent men

will talk
over you

at you
about you

object, topic

nascent agent

put your roots down
and pretend

the storms are normal

The poets collected here are Christina Shah, Jaeyun Yoo, James X. Wang, Rebecca Holand and Robbie Chesick, all of whom, according to their author biographies, have been emerging in a variety of literary journals across Canada, but haven’t yet chapbooks or full-length collections. There is a nice narrative bob and lyric bounce to the poems of Jaeyun Yoo, such as the final stanza of the three-stanza “a woman of water,” that offers:

most days, she scurried past and went to bed
a tadpole hiding under clumps of mud
another day, I had to wrest the bottle away

and watched her balter, like cattails lurching
their swollen heads back and forth

some days, she nibbled the sandwich crust
curled around me as if a warm palm to a cup

then I would finally lean my weight
boulders in her water, briefly buoyant

As they write at the back: “Brine is a collaborative chapbook created by Harbour Centre 5, a collective of emerging poets who met through Simon Fraser University’s Weekend Poetry Course. They craft poetry with a process akin to brining—words submerged, cured, until rich in flavour.” Dedicated “to our mentors, Fiona Tinwei Lam & Evelyn Lau,” I’m reminded of when I was first introduced to the work of Newfoundland writers Michael Winter, Lisa Moore and others, through a group anthology self-produced back in 1994, the culmination of nine years of self-directed workshopping a group of emerging writers had managed, after their creative writing class had ended. It is, as they say, possible to get there from here.