Friday, June 30, 2023

Ongoing notes: late June, 2023: Scott Cecchin + Patrick Grace,

Odd to think that my mother would have been eighty-three today; my father would have been eighty-two this past Monday. Oh, and don’t forget I have a substack, yes? I think I’m gearing up for another book-length non-fiction project (possibly).

Montreal QC: A resident of Nogojiwanong/Peterborough, poet Scott Cecchin’s second chapbook is HOUSE (Montreal QC: Vallum Magazine/Vallum Chapbook Series No. 35, 2022), following Dusk at Table (O. Underworld! Press, 2020). I’m intrigued by the breaks, breaths and halts, the rhythms of this particular chapbook-length suite, and his poems expand upon their rhythms as the poems progress. What I find most interesting is how and where he holds the small moments and fragments of speech, appearing far more compelling than later on in the collection, as his narratives stretch into more traditional and even conventional plain-speech. But there is something here, and I am intrigued. As the opening title poem, “HOUSE,” reads:

The house flowers
in light. Be-
low that,
dirt. Deeper,

a glacier. And deepest:
        Inside you, a moon. And
            in the moon, somewhere, is

            you. The sun gets inside every-
            thing; and when the sun’s out
            we are too.


            The house, pressed
            into the deep,

            like a seed,
            sinks. Look up:

            air, so
            many ships sinking up

            there. Above that,
            ice—and higher:
                      The earth

is shaped by fire and water, while
water enters earth and air. The air,

sometimes, holds fire and water,
and fire gives earth to the air.

Montreal QC: One of the latest titles from James Hawes’ Turret Press is a blurred wind swirls back for you (2023), a second chapbook by Vancouver poet and editor Patrick Grace, following Dastardly (Anstruther Press, 2021). Set in three sections of sequence-fragments—“a brazen thing,” “the sky cottoned” and “a blurred wind swirls back for you”—this is a curious chapbook-length sequence, offering one step and then another, towards a kind of expansion, say, over a particular ending or closure. The first section offers what might be a flirtation, writing as the third page/fragment:

lightning came             lightning          lit the night
it gave us an easy in

                        an ice
                                                to break

What strikes most are the rhythms, the pacing; a very fine patter across a length of tethered fragments, although there are some moments in the language that strike far less. Either way, there is something interesting here, and worth paying attention to, to see where Grace moves next. I say keep an eye on this one.

Thursday, June 29, 2023

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Matthew Hollett

Matthew Hollett is a writer and photographer in St. John’s, Newfoundland (Ktaqmkuk). His work explores landscape and memory through photography, writing and walking. Optic Nerve, a collection of poems about photography and visual perception, was published by Brick Books in 2023. Album Rock (2018) is a work of creative nonfiction and poetry investigating a curious photograph taken in Newfoundland in the 1850s. Matthew won the 2020 CBC Poetry Prize, and has previously been awarded the NLCU Fresh Fish Award for Emerging Writers, The Fiddlehead’s Ralph Gustafson Prize for Best Poem, and VANL-CARFAC’s Critical Eye Award for art writing. He is a graduate of the MFA program at NSCAD University.

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, Album Rock, is a mix of creative nonfiction, poetry and archival material investigating a strange photo taken in Newfoundland in the 1850s by Paul-Émile Miot. The project began as a blog post, then expanded over several years to a research grant, an exploratory road trip, and eventually a published book. You learn so many things over the course of a long-term project like that (publishing contracts, working with editors and designers, image permissions). It’s not lightning-bolt life-changing, but more cumulative. It snowballs.

My most recent book, Optic Nerve, is a collection of poems about photography and visual perception. It took shape over many years, too, and had its own complicated flight path. Both books gesture towards some of the same ideas and preoccupations – ekphrasis, photography and complicity, a sense of place – but they’re very different. Album Rock is a macro lens, Optic Nerve more fish-eyed. I like that one is published by Boulder and one by Brick. A good solidity there.

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

I came to poetry through My Body Was Eaten by Dogs by David McFadden – it caught my eye one day in my high school library, and I read it cover to cover and almost immediately started writing poems. Terrible poems. Shortly afterwards I became fascinated by E.E. Cummings, and filled notebooks with floaty visual cloud-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?

My projects always begin as a nebulous collection of small things which gradually cohere into a larger thing. I am always generating small things: journal entries, field notes from walks, poem fragments, quotes from books, photographs. Every project is rooted in these archives. So beginning something new is usually a matter of sifting through bits and pieces, finding unexpected connections.

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?

A single poem usually begins either as a firsthand observation, or as an exploration of language (sometimes I think of the poems as either “outdoorsy” or “indoorsy”). Bookwise, Optic Nerve is themed around photography and seeing, and I’m working on a new collection of poems about walking.

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

I love reading aloud. During solo writing residencies I’ve often read entire books aloud to an empty house, which is a fantastic way to feel immersed in the writing’s texture and soundscape. I write my own poems with the idea that they will be read aloud, and enjoy public readings.

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 like looking at things. The current question depends on what I’m looking at. The bigger question, of course, is what to look at.

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’ve always liked Kurt Vonnegut’s take on this: “I sometimes wondered what the use of any of the arts was. The best thing I could come up with was what I call the canary in the coal mine theory of the arts. This theory says that artists are useful to society because they are so sensitive. They are super-sensitive. They keel over like canaries in poison coal mines long before more robust types realize that there is any danger whatsoever.”

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

Working with an editor is difficult in the best kind of way, where you feel discomfort, which is the sensation of being challenged and learning and changing. I find it essential, but never easy.

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

From Guy Debord’s autobiography: “My method will be very simple. I will tell what I have loved; and, in this light, everything else will become evident and make itself well enough understood.”

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

It doesn’t feel like moving between genres – both poetry and photography are the work of seeing things in new ways. I’m fascinated by the way that poems and photos can complement each other. They both feel like quieter, more intimate ways of making, creating meaning by stringing a series of small observations together.

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?

My only routine is to read for about 45 minutes as I eat breakfast. I realize it’s a luxury to structure my mornings this way, and I cling to it desperately. I don’t have a regular writing routine, but I make writing time during evenings or days off, or once in while through grants, residencies or creative writing classes.

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

Going for a long walk works miracles. I can sometimes also unblock my brain by switching from my computer to writing on paper.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Ocean wind – not so much the fragrance but the force of it. There’s nothing like the breath-burgling, voice-snuffing, brain-numbing winds out on the headlands near St. John’s.

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 went to art school, and I really enjoy writing in response to images – paintings, photographs, films. Anything visual. I’m especially interested in the way that documentary films can be lyrical and poetic (I love Agnès Varda’s work, and Werner Herzog’s), and the way that they can weave real-life observations together to create meaning. There are lessons there for poetry, I think.

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

Teju Cole is an incredible writer and photographer and I enjoy his books immensely. I just finished reading Robert Macfarlane’s Underland and really loved it. Likewise Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass. And one of my favourite films is Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I, a documentary about finding things, which begins in whimsy and moves almost surreptitiously to more poignant social concerns.

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

A really long walk, like the Kumano Kodō or the Pennine Way or the Camino de Santiago.

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?

Writing is an ongoing creative practice for me, but I wouldn’t call it an occupation. I do lots of things that are not writing – photography, design work, web development, arts administration.

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

Writing gives me a specific kind of joy that I don’t experience elsewhere. I love language – its sound, its mouthfeel, the deep deep history of words – and I get enormous pleasure from the process of wrangling language into something poem-shaped or book-shaped.

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

Teju Cole’s Black Paper is a collection of brilliant, incisive essays about art, photography and seeing. Cole traces Caravaggio’s travels in exile, considers what it means to look at photographs of suffering, and writes about writing during dark times. “The secret reason I read, the only reason I read, is precisely for those moments in which the story being told is deeply alert to the world, an alertness that sees things as they are or dreams things as they could be.”

I watch a lot of movies. The one I’ve enjoyed the most recently is Ciro Guerra’s The Wind Journeys. It’s set in Northern Colombia, and in addition to marvellous cinematography, characters, and music, it features the most captivating accordion battles ever put to film.

20 - What are you currently working on?

A collection of poems about walking.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Béatrice Szymkowiak, B/RDS



How pleasing when a clouded sky
ripens with rain. Water-logged

seeds imagine blossoms & the swell
of duration / wings sail along

ponds & hedges / clear rivulets
root rivers. Hear in shallow pools,

the unremitted flappings / flocks
wading the course of days

in the afterstorm / an axe’s thud
hung at the extremity of a twig

drops & drowns. Rings ripple,
quills / fly off.

The full-length debut by French-American writer and scholar Béatrice Szymkowiak [see her recent '12 or 20 questions' interview here], following RED ZONE (Finishing Line Press, 2018), is B/RDS (Salt Lake City UT: The University of Utah Press, 2023), published as winner of the Agha Shahid Ali Prize in Poetry. Much like New Hampshire-based Polish-American poet and translator Ewa Chrusciel’s recent Yours, Purple Gallinule (Omnidawn, 2022) [see my review of such here], B/RDS (obviously) is a book of birds that writes into the Anthropocene and out of John James Audobon’s Birds of America (1827-1838) as a source text both for content and language, pulling threads and highlighting the losses of entire species of birds due to human interference. As Szymkowiak offers as part of the book’s “Preface”:

My writing process started by considering the text of Birds of America (the Ornithological Biography accompanying the drawings) as an archival cage. For this reason, I resolved to strictly abide by the rule of keeping the order of the words (or letters) from the text-source—my text-source  being Birds of America in alphabetical order. I then selectively erased the textual cage to reveal its ambiguity and the complex relationship between humanity and the other-than-human world. As the cage disappeared, birds escaped, their voices inextricably entangled with ours—a spectral, equivocal “we.” Finally, I reshuffled the resulting poems and added migratory poems written in my own words and prompted from lines from the erasure poems. These migratory poems, like ripples, trace the link between past and present.

B/RDS is a book of precision and moving through space, through air, propelled and attuned to a uniquely-magical language and lyric. There is such delight and play of strike and sound through these lines, even as each poem sits as an individual cobblestone or brick, each set to articulate the accumulated outline of her subject of ecological erosion. She writes on birds, and the waves of man-made losses and their rippling effects. As Agha Shahid Ali Prize judge Monica Youn writes as part of her “Foreward”: “Throughout Béatrice Szymkowiak’s devastatingly beautiful B/RDS, I felt as if I were responding to a similar call, but the echoing voices in this collection are real, urgent, inescapable—a fusion of elegy and prophecy. With its trills and elisions, grace notes and percussive cries, the collection gives voice to the billions of birds lost on this continent over the past decades through human predation, industrialization, waste and sprawl—James Elroy Flecker’s classic phrase seems apt: ‘That silence where the birds are dead / yet something pipeth like a bird.’” Szymkowiak simultaneously writes directly and slant on birds and their losses, writing of seasons and flights, of sun and landscapes along the ridge. As the prose poem “Wherever Sun Ends” writes, in full: “Two crows perched in the pine grove caw ghosts of unsung passing. Ice spears from the eaves. Dread devours clouds. I fear how tangible your tongue before its silence. Deer ellipses dot the snow thawing clock. On the ground, a red-tailed hawk claws & tears its own disappearance.”

The Night Is Pitch-Dark but We /

murmur through shattered glass breathe, breathe, the light from dead stars still glows! Along night eaves, mangled starlings heave stellar wings to tenebrous ceilings & tilt equinox back to breathe, breathe constellations. Light is shattered from the mangled night. how many dead stars still glow? Tenebrous wings cleave away from you, heave equinox back to pitch-dark ceilings. Breathe, breathe, starlings murmur along mangled eaves, how constellations tilt from dead stars to light! Still you, shattered wings through tenebrous glass murmur how many, how many dead stars

& cleave equinox halves away.

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

A manifesto on the poetics of Asphodel Twp.

Sad to hear, via the Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild (through a facebook post) that Canadian bookbinder Michael Wilcox has died. Back out in 2011 (July, I think) we drove out to Big Cedar so Christine could interview him for the CBBAG magazine, and she brought me along for the sake of the three-plus hour drive, as well as for the fact that the Wilcox was well-known for his gruffness. Wilcox was a Master Bookbinder, and had been decades been repairing books for the University of Toronto Rare Books Library, driving up to pick up books to take home for repair (I suspect he was the only one allowed to leave that building with any of their materials).

We dropped into his studio, and apparently the fact that I tagged-along allowed for some stories he might not have told. Before the interview officially began, he showed us his studio workshop, including the incredible array of tools he’d hand-made. Given I’m unaware of most printing and book-repair tools (especially then), I kept asking him what various items and equipment were and were for, which would prompt him to tell a small story for each (stories he might not have told, Christine says, as she would have known what all that equipment was). It was an interesting visit, and his wife Suzanne was delightful, and she said we could come back and visit at any time (he didn’t seem against the idea, but also not the sort of thing he might have offered). I’m wishing we would have taken her up on that (although he and Christine did correspond quite a bit after our visit).

Here's a poem I wrote them, after we landed back home (and yes, they did live in Asphodel Township):

A manifesto on the poetics of Asphodel Twp.

for Michael & Suzanne Wilcox,

            I have forgot
                            and yet I see clearly enough
            central to the sky
                            which ranges round it.

            William Carlos Williams, “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”



If Heaven, river. What greeny something. Shine, Kawartha Highlands. Lake, and early hum. Once, in the shadows. Glowing outwards, temperate. Ontario syntax. Reassuring this, and self. A revelation, you. I see the world. Claw, in architecture. Bipolar lift, a tongue. A peace the mind can breathe. Although the dark remains, small lights in favour. Celebration, soar.




The mouth, at Cameron's Point. An acid-free layer. Craft: a promise, fold. Is this all nothing? Repair, a situation. Sorrow, and a cock-eyed grin. In this room, this other room. A complicated, binding. This morning, Highway 7. Double-binding, surface of a still. Lovesick Lake, meeting hip to shape to shore to night. A glacier, made. Such frozen light.





Asphodel, greeny flower. Surveyed in 1820, Richard Birdsal. To warm up, bottles under covers. All the uphill way. If it is, repeated. Notes, and highway. Hummingbird feeders, to keep from ants, from black bears. An empty bench, among. Back and forth, snow-scribbling. Some other star. The metaphor: cast iron, photo-legal. Walking. John Becket and his wife, five children.





You left your mark. Combination of industry. Vaguely seen, but can't cross. Waterskin. Go, central-eastern. The shores of Rice Lake, frequent. Burned away. Big Cedar, smoke. Yours, truly. Tell, no other story. Picked up, by useless clouds. Such well-bred manner, brush. Such lovely liquid. A leather casing, isolation. Those that have the will.