Thursday, October 06, 2022

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Alisha Kaplan

Alisha Kaplan is a Canadian poet and narrative medicine practitioner. She has an MFA in Poetry from New York University and is currently pursuing a Master’s in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University. Kaplan is on the Narrative-Based Medicine Team at the University of Toronto and is a workshop facilitator with the Writers Collective of Canada. Her writing has appeared in Fence, DIAGRAM, PRISM International, Carousel, The New Quarterly, and elsewhere. Honours she has received include the Hippocrates Prize in Poetry and Medicine, a Rona Jaffe Fellowship, and winning the Eden Mills Writers Festival Literary Contest. Her debut collection of poems, Qorbanot: Offerings, a collaboration with artist Tobi Kahn, is the winner of the Gerald Lampert Memorial Prize from the League of Canadian Poets. Kaplan splits her time between Toronto, New York, and Bela Farm where she grows garlic, harvests honey and wild plant medicine, and hosts barn dances.

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

I may need a few more years to properly answer that question. From my current position in time, I can see that writing my book helped me to process much of the guilt, shame, and anger I had held onto from my religious upbringing and generational trauma from the Holocaust. It was a real journey that took me to a place where I realized I could create my own rituals and write my own prayers (which poems can be, and often are).

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

I wrote a lot of (terrible) poetry as a kid and angsty teen. In undergrad, when I began to consider a writing career, I actually wrote more prose poetry and short stories than poetry. But from the beginning, I was a poet first.

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’s a snail-paced process. Draft after draft after draft. Sometimes a writing project takes shape in my mind before it touches down on paper. Sometimes the paper gives it shape. Then I need to live with the lines, turn them over on my tongue, leave them be and return to them.

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?

I like having projects. Though, I might have a notion of what a project is going to be, and it ends up roving in an unexpected direction or revealing itself as something else. My writing process is a bit unusual; I can best describe it as “foraging.” I like to gather from different sources—sometimes my own, sometimes others’—and collage it all into a poem or longer work. I rarely have a poem in my mind that I then linearly write. I move around the lines or the pieces like a puzzle.

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

Despite being shy, I do enjoy doing readings—if I’m in the right emotional state. For instance, when my book came out, I was feeling very vulnerable about it and found myself wanting to retreat into the darkest corner rather than get up on a stage. Now, a year later, I feel the pull to share my work face to face, in real time and space. I also love collaborating with musicians, dancers, and artists in performance.

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?

Prevailing concerns I have are: What do we hear in the silence? And how do the words live off the page?

Some of the questions I worked to answer in Qorbanot were: What does it mean to “offer”? How do I translate the ancient practice of sacrificial offering into my life in the 21st century? How can a poem be an offering, or a book an altar upon which I place what I have to give? What does it mean to write one’s own sacred texts? What is it about giving up something that makes it a meaningful act of worship? Why the obsession with purity laws in Judaism, and how has this affected the way we relate to animal bodies and our own bodies? How do we reconcile these ancient, fleshly, violent rituals with Judaism and, more broadly, Western religion today? Do humans have an inherent tendency toward violence? Can we find parallels to sacrifice in recent history, such as war, politics or environmental issues?

The main question currently occupying my writer’s mind is: How can we find more language around suicide to better express its nuances, complexities, and diverse motivations? I’ve also been contemplating the relationship between depression and anger. And I’ve been grappling with how to share my story in a way that serves as a resource for others and, at the same time, protects my own vulnerability.

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?

I don’t think the writer has one role. There are so many different kinds of writers with different roles they can take on. A writer can serve as a lighthouse illuminating the moment in which we are living. The writer can be a dreamer, a prophet. The writer can be a court jester. The writer can offer medicine. And some writers have a role for themselves alone, to which the rest of the world is not privy.

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

Essential. A good editor can see what I can’t, from over there.

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

I try to keep in mind this line from the poem “How to Be Perfect” by Ron Padgett: “Hope for everything. Expect nothing.”

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

These days I’m moving more between poetry and non-fiction, and I find that the writing takes on the form that it needs to be in.

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?

These days there is no typical day. When I am in more of a routine, which I like to be, I usually begin with a workout or yoga and meditation. Then, before I turn on my phone, look at my email, and let the demands of the day flood in, I sit with a cup of tea in my favourite cafe and write until my brain hurts.

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

I find that conversations or workshops with friends and fellow poets best helps to unstick my writing. And movement—going for a walk does wonders, especially somewhere full of trees and plants. Or total stillness—I like lying on the floor. It grounds all that cerebral work and offers a new perspective. A solution tends to arrive in one of those situations.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Depends on the season. Depends on the home. At the moment, it’s beeswax.

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?

Most definitely nature, which includes all of the above. I get a lot of inspiration from weeds, bees, trees, and soil. I spend as much time as I can on my farm, Bela Farm, which is now bursting with colour, song, scents, and creativity. The other day I was picking tiny wild strawberries that grow all over the farm, and fragments of a poem grew in my head as I crawled on my knees through the grass, searching for berries.

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

Today, they include: Anne Carson. Rosemary Tonks. Louise Glück. Sylvia Plath. Kavanagh and Heaney. Ada Limón. Basho and Buson. Sappho. Blake. H.D. The list is, of course, much longer. And the truth is, probably more than those giants, the writers who are most important for my work and my life are my poet friends, who constantly inspire.

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

I’d like to write a book-length poem. I want to create a support system for women with mysterious chronic illnesses and to build the field of Environmental Narrative Medicine. I want to be a mother. And I’d like to be the bassist in a moderately famous rock band.

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?

If I hadn’t become a writer, I might have ended up being a psychiatrist or a midwife. Or a farmer.

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

It was what I was drawn to, again and again.

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

The best book I have read this year—maybe in years—is When We Cease to Understand the World by Chilean writer Benjamín Labatut.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’m working on a lyric essay about suicide—a search for better language for suicide. It’s a hybrid of prose, poetry, and image that intertwines Kurt Cobain’s story with mine.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Wednesday, October 05, 2022

Tawanda Mulalu, Please make me pretty, I don’t want to die: Poems



Has anyone managed to make a world.
after race we turn to genetics, return
after to the archives for new history. Who

then determines when we’re from. Roots,
we learn to speak of them. The baobabs do

not speak of themselves. We hear wind flee
through their leaves. We see our minds feast

through bark as ants warring with termites.
Has anyone managed to make themselves.

We wonder our excitement when we see
only our wide teeth speak, only our large lips,

anything so small as proof that we could not
hold one another. We do maybe. We did not.

I was startled by the poems in New York City-based poet Tawanda Mulalu’s full-length debut, his Please make me pretty, I don’t want to die: Poems (Princeton University Press, 2022). There is such a smart and vibrant energy and confidence to this collection, composed through a thick, complicated series of wisdoms, descriptions and lyric offerings. “So,” he writes, as part of the poem “STILL LIFE,” “I’m part of this thing where fish learned to walk. / Your first baby pictures look like seahorses. / We stop now to consider our lungs. / Look at all that we have made / and behold it is very good.” Referencing his debut, then still in-progress, as part of a short write-up on the Tin House website, he offers that:

The poems within it seem (to me) to be about the failure of intimacy and frequently ask what it means to be (or not be) seen by others and by oneself. They are written from, for and against: America, blackness, Sylvia Plath, prettiness, song, poetry, and mind.

In many ways, Mulalu offers his collection as one structured two-fold: an engagement with form, and an articulation and examination of placement and positioning, each thread an essential way through which an engagement with the other is achieved. Mulalu writes through the form of the elegy and the sonnet, for example, offering a lyric as much music as it might be a kind of dream; as much sadness and grief as he includes a kind of dreamy optimism. Across a wide scope of attention, Mulalu writes of the difficulty of families, traditional poetic forms and ecological concerns; he writes of racism and America; he writes of difference and division, citing aggressions and encounters that exhaust, but offered in a way that enlightens as much as documents. As he writes to close the poem “SECOND SONNET”: “There is too much potential in this dying / planet not to believe you are at the end of this. yes even I / hear you long enough to hear another person: and think she / was as clever as you said you were at the start of this: who / is not the point. I meant this Earth.” One can’t help but admire the seemingly straight lines, lyric ease and accumulations of Mulalu’s poems, composing lines that bend in the light, or perhaps even with gravity, given their incredible density and strength. These are highly structured poems that read with such a lightness of line that one might get lost. There’s so much happening in these poems, so much spoken and hinted, such as the poem “MY SISTER LIKES GIRLS AND DOES NOT / RETURN FOR MY MOTHER’S FIFTIETH,” a poem that begins: “Months after I hadn’t had my first oyster / before I came to America. My sister in Canada now // where it starts snowing soon. Things I haven’t seen / keep cropping up. Movies are colonialism // and I’m such a dutiful director, swerving cameras / around oceans I hadn’t had before.” Mulalu’s poems point to song, but a song that carries the enormous weight and heft of love and loss and being, articulating clever turns of narrative and turns of phrase, showcasing some of the best the lyric form might offer across a canvas as wide as it is precise. “My open window / a synecdoche of country.” he writes, as part of the poem “MISCEGENATION ELEGY,” “No matter how much smoke a pig / roasts won’t erupt into song.”