Thursday, May 27, 2021

2021 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist interviews: Joseph Dandurand

The East Side of It All, Joseph Dandurand
Nightwood Editions
2021 Griffin Poetry Prize • Canadian Shortlist

The 2021 Griffin Poetry Prize will be announced on June 23, 2021.

Joseph Dandurand is a storyteller, poet, playwright and member of Kwantlen First Nation located on the Fraser River about twenty minutes east of Vancouver. He resides there with his three children. Dandurand is the director of the Kwantlen Cultural Centre, artistic director of the Vancouver Poetry House and author of three other books of poetry, I Want (2015), Hear and Foretell (2015), and SH:LAM (The Doctor) (2015). Dandurand was Vancouver Public Library’s 2019 Indigenous storyteller in residence.

The East Side of It All is very much constructed as a book-length project. As the copy tells us, the book is “written from the perspective of a drug user and single-room occupant in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, explores the ongoing process of healing through reconnection with family, the natural world and traditional Indigenous (Kwantlen) storytelling.” How did the project first present itself to you, and what did you learn through the process?

For this book of poems I had been working downtown east side and I would always arrive early either for a reading or a workshop with the Elders of the community and I would stand at Hastings and Main where there was a gathering of other Indigenous folks. Most were selling cigarettes and weed, and I would sit there and watch all the characters and sense the emotions of the world around me. I would store these images and characters and when I sat down to write I would begin with the emotions I had seen, and the characters of the city would become the characters of each poem. I had already written 3 books of poems on this world and so the voice I had was already there for me and so I wrote the book like I write all my work these days and that is one poem a day.

Given your extensive work as a storyteller, how important is sound on the page as you work? Do you feel there is anything lost at all in sound or cadence through working on the page? What is the difference?

I write like I would read it out loud and this has gotten me into trouble with publishers in the past as my use of the word ‘and’ in my poems is for me a breath and when you hear me read you will definitely hear the pauses and breaths that the word ‘and’ allows me. That is what I find funny sometimes when I am reading with other writers and they tend to sing the last word of the sentence or stanza and I think to myself…do they write like this? Do they sing the last word when they write or is it some sort of poetry reading style? Anyways I do not feel I lose the cadence when I write as I write every piece to be read aloud and it seems to work and…

When I first encountered you during our days in Mark Frutkin’s poetry workshop at the University of Ottawa, you were simultaneously composing poetry and plays. Since then, you’ve produced books of poetry, plays and short stories, as well as works for younger audiences. How do these different genres interact with each other? Do you see each genre as a separate thread, or all part of a singular, ongoing project?

Ahh Frutkin! The only thing he taught me that I use when I teach kids writing workshops…poetry does not rhyme! Always stuck with me. When I am near completion of a new manuscript of either poems, short stories, or a new play, I am already thinking about the next project. I may take a few days off but the desire to work gets me back to the next work and I write every morning. Now I think my use of different genres are joined as now my last 3 manuscripts of poetry are all the same with 3 paragraphs in each and each a scene and in some cases, they are not joined but, in the end, they become the scene of the piece. My plays have always been poetic. My short stories are new to me, so I am still working on a style, but they are simple as most of our old stories were simple and not written down. We tell our children that each of us has a gift and I have friends who can hear songs that are floating in the wind and they begin to sing these songs and when they are done with them the songs go back and I feel that if I have a gift then it is one where I am gifted with stories and images for poems and ideas for new plays. Writing for children began with an old play I had written after school and I wrote this play that is now produced and is now turned into a film and is being translated to Dutch. For short stories I needed them for all the kids I teach on a weekly basis. So I am now working on my 3rd book of short stories and am 3 stories into it and I am allowing the stories to find me and allow me to use my gift to create.

Given you work in multiple genres, how do you decide where a particular story or idea might land in terms of structure? Are there ideas or subjects that you find more condusive to exploring through poetry over storytelling, and vice versa, or is it more organic than that? How does a project begin?

I always am thinking of what to work on next as I am finishing a project. So if I am working a book of poems I am thinking of perhaps a new play or a book of short stories. I go from one form to another. I guess that is organic? A project begins with some music in the back and then I begin with the title and the work begins.

Have you been writing much in the way of poetry since The East Side of It All was completed? What have you been working on since?

Since covid I have written several books of poems, a few plays and am working on a new book of short stories for kids. With my publisher I am good for a few years. Being a recluse before covid and now with self isolation I have no excuse but to write and so I do. I have  a new children’s play I am about to begin to workshop and I am also working with an illustrator and my publisher on a new children’s book. Have been so busy as zoom has allowed me to travel the world and read and listen to others. As AD of the Vancouver Poetry House we have just completed out Festival Verses 2021. Next for me I am teaching and taking care of my 3 kids 2 dogs now 5 with new pups a cat a fishing net that needs mending and I await the river to be open for us to catch the first fish of the year.

Monday, May 24, 2021

2020 Governor General's Literary Awards Poetry shortlist interviews: Donna Kane

Orrery, Donna Kane
Harbour Publishing, 2020
The Canada Council for the Arts’ 2020 Governor General's Literary Awards poetry shortlist

The 2020 Governor General's Literary Awards winners will be announced on Tuesday, June 1, 2021.

Donna Kane, a recipient of the Aurora Award of Distinction: Arts and Culture and an honorary Associate of Arts degree from Northern Lights College, is the current executive director of the Peace Laird Regional Arts Council and co-founder of Writing on the Ridge (a non-profit society that has, for over twenty years, organized arts festivals, literary readings, artist retreats and writer-in-residence programs). Her work has appeared in journals and magazines across Canada. She is the author of two previous poetry titles, Somewhere, a Fire and Erratic (Hagios Press, 2004 and 2007), and the memoir Summer of the Horse (Harbour Publishing, 2018). She divides her time between Rolla, BC and Halifax, NS.

The book description for Orrery offers that “Orrery is a collection that orbits around the theme of Pioneer 10, an American space probe launched in 1972 to study Jupiter’s moons.” What prompted you to write a book around Pioneer 10?

Before Facebook, was my go-to place for procrastination. I’d sit at the computer and watch the frames of curated news items roll by, usually on the lookout for some empty distraction like “This Week’s Best and Worst Dressed List.” One evening in 2003, an article on Pioneer 10 came up – “Pioneer 10 Calls Home Last Time.” The source of the CBC article was NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. The media release read, “After more than 30 years, it appears the venerable Pioneer 10 spacecraft has sent its last signal to Earth. Pioneer’s last, very weak signal was received on Jan. 22, 2003. NASA has no additional contact attempts planned for Pioneer 10.” The idea of shutting off communication to Pioneer 10, of this human made object drifting from earth until the earth no longer existed (scientists predict that given Pioneer 10’s trajectory, it could still be travelling long after our sun has consumed the earth), haunted me. This initial fascination grew into a kind of obsession, an impulse to keep track of P10, to keep it in my imagination. I gathered as many facts as I could find, its speed, its trajectory, its weight, the number of instruments it carried. And I started to write poems inspired by the probe, ideas around transformation, materiality, consciousness.

I’m curious about the ways in which you approach a poem, akin to the notion of Dorothy Livesay’s “documentary” poem: composing lyrics that explore and document details of lived experience. What brought you to this approach?

It’s true that my poetry is lyric, and that I almost always use the material world as my launching point. Most of my concerns revolve around the material world and our relationships with each other and with other-than-human animals and life. While I admire all forms of poetry, for me, language is a way to explore these concerns. I don’t think I came to this approach in a calculated way; it is more that this was the approach that, for me, felt the most meaningful. Writing poetry (and reading it) forces me to slow down and to think things through and in so doing, often changes the way I think and perceive the world. I love the jolt of an insight which can be reassuring, surprising, or any number of other emotional responses. I love the mysteries in life, and poetry often helps me feel a bit closer to them.

In an interview posted at Geosi Reads around your prior collection, you respond that “metaphor is the engine, the workhorse of poetry.” Does this still hold true for the poems in this current collection?

I hope so. In Jan Zwicky’s recent book, The Experience of Meaning, she writes about gestalt comprehension, the phenomena of how our senses apprehend the world, and in her previous work, such as Wisdom and Metaphor, she explores how metaphor gives rise to meaning, so that, in some ways, wisdom is metaphor. This kind of thinking rings true for me and feels important to my own work. When a metaphor works (mine or someone else’s), it resonates with what feels like a truth. While I can’t say if all of my poems in Orrery achieve this, it is what I aspire to.

What was the process of organizing the final manuscript for Orrery? Many of your poems feel akin to lyric bursts, which would require a particular order and shape to the final collection. Did this emerge organically, or was there a shape you were aiming toward?

The poems in Orrery are not so much about Pioneer 10 as inspired by philosophical ideas arising from the probe. In ordering the final manuscript, poems that directly reference P10 or space travel were put into the first section of the book as more of a logical choice; the second section accesses more of the human “I” while the third section employs more other-than-human life as the subject. But there was also an organic ordering in each section and as a whole I hoped to build an overall shape of wonder and empathy for the world around us.

I’m wondering your take on nostalgia. How does one write without romanticising the past?

I am not a fan of nostalgia, and I am not a Romantic. When I do address the subject of nostalgia or write in what one might call high lyricism, that is, expressing emotion or reverence for the material world, I find that humour, restraint, and demotic speech help to quell sentimentality.

Have you been writing much in the way of poetry since Orrery was completed? What have you been working on since?

I am currently working on another poetry manuscript that explores the ways Western society continues to distinguish between humans and other animals in ways that suggest we are not the same organism. I’ve been doing a lot of research into the work of philosophers, biologists, naturalists, and writers engaged in animal studies. I’m also exploring the double-edged sword of anthropomorphism, how anthropomorphizing other animals can negatively affect our thoughts about and therefore our relationships with them as well as risks evaluating another animal’s intelligence based solely on our own capacities. But then, on its other edge, denouncing anthropomorphism can deny other animals similar capacities such as emotions, languages, and dreaming, resulting in their exploitation and the loss of their habitat. In my work, I’m considering the sentience, cognition and emotion that exists in all animals and I’m addressing in a more general way the underlying structures of thought that contribute to intolerance and lack of empathy as it affects not only other animals, but also differences in race, class, and gender identity within our own species.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

2020 Governor General's Literary Awards Poetry shortlist interviews: Anne Carson

norma jean baker of troy, Anne Carson
New Directions, 2020
The Canada Council for the Arts’ 2020 Governor General's Literary Awards poetry shortlist

The 2020 Governor General's Literary Awards winners will be announced on Tuesday, June 1, 2021.

Anne Carson [photo credit: Peter Smith] was born in Canada and lives partly in Iceland now. 

I’m fascinated with the ways in which you approach books, especially given how many you’ve published so far. Does each new project begin as a potential extension of a far wider, ongoing canvas, or do you see each work as uniquely separate? Or a bit of both?

each one a new push into unknown places on tracks not yet possible.

Your work has long been engaged with blendings of ideas and forms, with this new work, a play shortlisted for a poetry prize, exploring both Marilyn Monroe and Helen of Troy “from their point of view.” What is it that such blendings provide that might not be possible otherwise?

i think of it more as juxtaposition than blending.  i find it more fruitful to think about 2 things in interaction with each other, rather than to think about either of them alone.  a triangular conversation is often easier than one on one.

The mythological Helen of Troy continues to fascinate contemporary poets, from H.D.’s infamous take to Georgia poet Gale Marie Thompson, who published her Helen Or My Hunger last year with YesYes Books. Has the mythological Helen become a figure that changes with each era because we require new ways of thinking about her?

yes certainly.  but Greek myths were always a vehicle for rethinking whatever problems are present to society’s mind at the moment – infinitely malleable substances, like play-doh with an air of ancient truth.

Given your exploration of form, what is it about the poem that holds your attention? Everything else you seem to do in your writing, from librettos to plays to essays, circles the foundation of poetry. What is it about poetry that anchors your attention from falling more fully into other forms?

falling is key.  there is no real falling in a prose medium, prose is a mechanism of intention and control.  only in poetry can you simply step off the building and fall. 

Have you been writing much in the way of poetry since norma jean baker of troy was completed? What have you been working on since?

a comic book version of Euripides’ Trojan Women with artist Rosanna Bruno is to be published this month (may 2021) by New Directions. 

a 12-minute opera libretto for composer Caroline Shaw and the Philadelphia Opera, available online.  title We Need To Talk.

a full-length opera libretto for composer Bryce Desmond and the Chicago Lyric Opera, to be mounted in 2024.  title Herakles.

an illustrated version of Euripides' Herakles (illustration by me).

Monday, May 17, 2021

2020 Governor General's Literary Awards Poetry shortlist interviews: Oana Avasilichioaei

Eight Track, Oana Avasilichioaei
Talonbooks, 2019
The Canada Council for the Arts’ 2020 Governor General's Literary Awards poetry shortlist

The 2020 Governor General's Literary Awards winners will be announced on Tuesday, June 1, 2021.

Oana Avasilichioaei interweaves poetry, sound, photography, and translation to explore an expanded idea of language, polyphonic structures, and borders of listening. Her six collections of poetry and poetry hybrids include Eight Track (Talonbooks, 2019, finalist for the A. M. Klein Prize for Poetry and the Governor General’s Literary Award) and Limbinal (Talonbooks, 2015). She has created many performance/sound works, written a libretto for a one-act opera (Cells of Wind, 2020), and translated ten books of poetry and prose from French and Romanian, including Catherine Lalonde’s The Faerie Devouring (Book*hug 2018, QWF’s Cole Foundation Prize for Translation) and Bertrand Laverdure’s Readopolis (Book*hug, 2017, Governor General’s Literary Award for Translation). She’s physically based in Montreal and virtually at


Eight Track seems very much constructed as a book-length project. How did it originally begin, and what did you learn through the process? 


I tend to work on book-length (and in recent years, beyond the book too) projects as I’m very interested in exploring the fuller world of a particular idea. The first piece I worked on for Eight Track (before I had even conceptualized it as so) is the final long poem in the book, “Tracking Animal.” I worked on this poem, on and off, for years, so in a sense it was written throughout the writing of the rest of the book too. I knew from the start that “Tracking Animal” would be a long work, long enough to be a book in itself, but I wasn’t satisfied with leaving it at that. In writing it, and because the idea of “tracking” was in it from the very beginning, I became fascinated with how many meanings this seemingly simple word has in English, and thus embarked on more fully delving into these meanings.


Having seen you perform, I’m fascinated by the ways in which you approach layerings of sound. Sound is something that Eight Track explores far more openly than some of your previous published work. How important do you consider sound on the page? Do you feel there is anything lost at all in sound or cadence through working on the page? What is the difference? 

Sound on the page has been very important to me for a long time, and it led initially to my exploration of it off the page as well. With each book, I am curious to discover ways of investigating sound in more depth or from more varied perspectives on the page. I certainly don’t think of it in terms of loss, but of how rich and generative the page can be. The spacing, syntax, punctuation, phonemes, font, gradations of type are all ways of examining or mining the sonic qualities and meanings of language. One of the differences, however, between the page and live performance is that once printed, the page is set in one particular way (though as readers, we of course bring our own individual interpretations to it), whereas in performance, the acoustic qualities of the space, the bodies of the audience, the specificities of the sound system, and how I as a performer I might be feeling that day (in my body and voice, for example), among other aspects, will all affect the performance in the live moment. This demands much active and attentive listening from the performer, so that they can adjust what they might do in any one instance.    


Given your exploration of form, from visual to sound, in this collection, what is it about the poem that holds your attention? What is it about poetry that anchors your attention from falling more fully into other forms?  

Because I feel that language shapes and defines human beings to such a profound extent, I am (and will likely always be) endlessly curious about how this happens. For me, the poem remains the most versatile and malleable way of exploring this because of its concision, focus, attention to the paralinguistic qualities of language, boundless possibility of form, and dynamic presence, among many other aspects.

Can you expand on how you have been working “beyond the book”? 

By this I mean taking poetry and literature out of the book and into other mediums such as performance, audio works, and even video. Eight Track is in a sense a multiform project that includes the book Eight Track, but that also exceeds the boundaries of the book with audio works such as “Eight over Two: A Soundtrack,” a multimedia performance called OPERATOR, and the filmpoem “Tracking Animal (an extemporization).”

I’m fascinated with the ways in which you move between different languages, exploring the connections, overlaps and disconnects both through translation of other works, and utilizing multiple languages within your own writing. How did this particular play first emerge? 

In a way, you could say it emerged as far back as when I first began to learn a second language (i.e. English) as a child (Romanian is my first language), as through this conscious learning of another language I realized how differently one thinks in different languages, how plastic and malleable languages can be, how much they change and evolve by how we use them, by how we place them in our bodies and mouths, how fundamentally social they are. Exploring the interstices between them, using the syntax of one to influence the syntax of another, creating fractures and interventions by bringing the sounds of one into the sounds of another, all this gives me incredible freedom in writing and thinking, as well as, more importantly, makes me discover any language in new ways, compels me to keep reconsidering, learning, and pushing its meanings.

Have you been writing much in the way of poetry since Eight Track was completed? What have you been working on since? 

I’ve began another large, multiform poetic project called CHAMBERSONIC that translates between different ways of scripting language and voice experiments, performing scores, and capturing/transmitting audio. With a focus on voice—its aural potential, silencing, inscribed interpretation—it will ultimately figure a hybrid poetry book and other traces such as an octophonic sound installation, audio works, graphic scores, and live performances. A poetry and audio sample from this current work was published in The Capilano Review last fall.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

2020 Governor General's Literary Awards Poetry/2021 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist interviews: Canisia Lubrin

The Dyzgraphxst, Canisia Lubrin
McClelland and Stewart, 2020
The Canada Council for the Arts’ 2020 Governor General's Literary Awards poetry shortlist ; 2021 Griffin Poetry Prize • Canadian Shortlist

The 2020 Governor General's Literary Awards winners will be announced on Tuesday, June 1, 2021.

The 2021 Griffin Poetry Prize will be announced on June 23, 2021.

Canisia Lubrin [photo credit: Samuel Engelking] is a writer, editor, and teacher. Her work is published widely and has been frequently anthologized, including translations into French, German, Italian, and Spanish. Lubrin’s most recent poetry collection, The Dyzgraphxst, was awarded the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, named a finalist for the Derek Walcott Poetry Prize, the Griffin Poetry Prize, and the Governor General's Literary Award for Poetry, and longlisted for the Raymond Souster Award and the Pat Lowther Memorial Award. Her debut poetry collection Voodoo Hypothesis, was named a CBC Best Poetry Book, longlisted for the Gerald Lampert Award, the Pat Lowther Memorial Award, and a finalist for the Raymond Souster Award. She was a finalist for the Toronto Book Award for her fiction contribution to The Unpublished City: Vol 1 and twice longlisted for the Journey Prize. In 2019, she was Writer in Residence at Queen’s University, and was named a Writers’ Trust 2020 Rising Star. In 2021, Lubrin was a recipient of the Windham-Campbell Prize. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph. Her fiction debut, Code Noir, is forthcoming from Knopf Canada.

As the copy for the collection offers, The Dyzgraphxst is deeply engaged with issues of “intensified capitalist fascism, toxic nationalism, and climate disaster [.]” Given this, what do you think poetry can accomplish?

Given the snowflake, or the river, or the Candian woods, or the geese flying over head? I’m not sure I understand the dissection between the “this” of this question and poetry. Poetry is a wide-open space, where anything the poet is interested in can land. I don’t know if poetry is cabable of anything today that it hasn’t always been capable of. I am a poet who follows her interests into poetry. That’s all there is. I can’t tell anybody else what to do with poetry. As Dionne Brand says, poetry interrogates the reader. The nature of that interrogation depends on all kinds of things. All I know is where I am willing to go, and that I am willing to be lead, as Walcott says, into the home of the imagination.

There is such a wonderful polyvocal structure that holds the collection together. How were you able to keep all of the threads organized? Had you any models for this kind of work?

Both of my books arrive in the experimental tradition of Black diasporic art, and in the mode of Caribbean creolization. Polyvocality is very much deply embeded in Caribbean culture. Of course, if a reader is not familiar with the Caribbean as a space, as a grouping of ideas, as geography and poeple, etc., these modes would simply be missed entirely (as happens often). But I am concious about the writing being capacious enough that even if some crucial things are missed, in some places of the world, the poetry must still sing. I suppose I always want to write a book in which the reader must be involved actively in their own way through it. So, if 25 people read the book, they’ll come away each with their own signification of the work. And that is especially true for The Dyzhraphxst. In that way, The Dyzgraphxst does not hide its design, which is complicated, elaborate, even. So, if you’re looking for how the thing is working (which, of course, is part of the way it asks to be read), and you think you don’t quite get it (or whatever “it” is there suggesting itself), you must still be able to go along with the music, the rhythmic, the sonic. The pleasures of language. It is designed to be read both structurally and for something you might call epiphany. Complicated design but easy music, obvious emotional range. Like a completed house whose scaffolding you can see... a glass house whose interior is full of surprises, like one of those mirror playhouses, say. But the design isn't intended to keep the reader at bay. It is intended to let the reader become it, in this case. And that is hard, humbling, frustrating, work.

How was it working with Dionne Brand as editor? Were there elements of working with her that intimidated?

No. There’s no intimidation to report. Brand is an editor of immense sensitivity and nuance and skill. We were not strangers coming to this work, either. For a person like me who doesn’t need much push, a single gesture of hers would set me off in large ways. Simply brilliant working with Brand.

Have you been writing much in the way of poetry since The Dyzgraphxst was completed? What have you been working on since?

Always writing poetry. The next book is coming soon and it is a collection of short stories. That’s what holds my attention today, among many other things.

The Dyzgraphxst is constructed much more as a singular project than your debut. How did this project first reveal itself to you, and how different was it working on this collection?

Perhaps Voodoo Hypothesis prepared you for The Dyzgraphxst more than you might realize. The two books are quite different because they are different projects, but they are close siblings. I have answered this question about how the book “revealed itself” so many times that I fear I will become weary of repeating myself too often. The Dyzgraphxst has its roots in Voodoo Hypothesis. But, The Dyzgraphxst is my attempt to work through my distrust of the lyric I, especially in relation to the egologic individualism that has come to mark so much poetry, so much of the modern world. I wanted to put pressure on my own stakes in this work as a lyric poet with little confessional interest. I am interested in a thing. A question arrives. I follow its curiosities. That’s the movement. This process wasn’t different in terms of how I write.

There is such a joyous and playful sense of sound and rhythm in both of your collections. How important are sound and rhythm to you as you work?

Sound and rhythm are inseparable from poetry in my estimation. I have said this so many times already, but it might need to be repeated more than I’d like to admit: music is the anatomy of poetry. Which is to say my door into poetry is always aesthetic. No matter what the themes and all the serious business depict, sound is what I follow. I think sound carries its own kind of sense and challenges us who read and listen to make more of meaning than the predictable thing that syntax offers. Sound opens up something that puts us closer to the pre-verbal and then the oral roots of language. The page is an attempt to hold all that dynamism. And that dynamism is the sensorium of language that is given the pressurized space of the page in which to move us. I don’t let up until I feel moved in that sense.

Monday, May 10, 2021

2020 Governor General's Literary Awards Poetry shortlist interviews: Sachiko Murakami

Render, Sachiko Murakami
Arsenal Pulp Press, 2020
The Canada Council for the Arts’ 2020 Governor General's Literary Awards poetry shortlist

The 2020 Governor General's Literary Awards winners will be announced on Tuesday, June 1, 2021.

Sachiko Murakami is the author of Render (2020), Get Me Out of Here (2015), Rebuild (2011), and The Invisibility Exhibit (2008). As a literary worker, she has edited poetry, taught creative writing, worked for trade organizations, hosted reading series, sat on juries, and judged prizes. She lives in Toronto.

The book description for Render opens with a definition of the word. How important was it for you to articulate the elements of breaking, reshaping and translation?

When I was describing the book as it was taking shape, I often said I was ‘rendering’ dreams and half-remembered experiences in poems. Then I thought about how ‘render’ has multiple meanings that are sometimes at odds with each other. Just three are to submit; to give in retribution; to melt down, by heating. A word can hold so much; a poem, even more. The poems deal with dreams and memories fractured by trauma and addiction. The idea that these experiences could be “rendered” at all is complex. Do I give them in retribution? What is melted down by heating? To whom am I submitting? These questions were the starting point for the project.

I’m curious as to what brought you to explore some of this material through the shape of poetry, over a more traditional, even if possibly lyric, non-fiction memoir. What did working through the material via poetry allow that might not have been possible otherwise?

As I said, trauma and alcohol and drug abuse affected my memory. There are gaps where important stuff happened, and many of the poems in the book circle these absences. I didn’t have the satisfying narrative arc a memoir requires. Poetry works well with glimpses, moments, sudden flights of feeling, knowings beyond explanation. I had all those things, so I wrote poetry.

When I interviewed you for Jacket2 in 2015 on your prior collection, Get Me Out Of Here, you described it as “[…] a book about wanting to leave, really: the self, the present, the here-and-now. How does that manifest? Through self-harm, through disassociation, through love, through poetry.” In hindsight, one might see the poems and possibility of Render in the background of some of these responses, with Get Me Out Of Here as a kind of prequel to the current work. Is that a fair assessment?

Yes, I guess Render is in relationship to Get Me Out Of Here, although that book was written in relationship to other people’s observations in airports, so those observations drove the poems. I didn’t have that escape hatch for these poems. Render is about attending to that “wanting to leave” response, staying with it and exploring what’s underneath it.

This collection is obviously deeply personal, working through an element of the confessional in a way outside of what you’ve published prior. What originally prompted you to attempt to work through some of this through writing?

I had originally thought I would do another collaborative project, this time about other people’s dreams. But I started writing poems in relationship to my own dream journal entries, and I realized most of them were about my own trauma, addiction, and recovery. I started writing more poems about those experiences, not always filtered through my dreams. I have written personal poems before, but I had always been made to feel that the confessional was a no-no in Serious Poetry. Then I started noticing the poets who were writing unapologetically – and well – about themselves and their own experiences, and that emboldened me.

I had “worked through” most of those experiences before writing poems about them – I tend to write from long after an intense experience, after I've worked through it with friends or in therapy or in reflection. Most of the poems were written in the middle of a long depressive episode when the flatness I felt gave me enough space to write into the really hard stuff. Although a few poems were written in the middle of intense feeling – I wrote “First Try or Failure” while I was having a miscarriage, for example, and the act of composition gave me something to focus on beyond what was happening in my body.

Did you have any models for this kind of work, this kind of collection?

Certainly Vivek Shraya’s Even This Page is White, Amber Dawn’s How Poetry Saved My Life, Billy Ray Belcourt’s This Wound is a World, and Aisha Sasha John’s I Have To Live were all on my desk. Render isn’t modelled on any of these, but I took heart from them while I was writing.

Have you been writing much in the way of poetry since Render was completed? What have you been working on since?

My mother died the day I handed in my final edits on this book, and then my daughter was born two weeks later. Grief and babies have a way of taking up a lot of space, and there hasn’t been a lot of the silence and calm I need for writing. I go through long periods where I don’t write, though, and I know that it will return when I'm ready.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Elee Kraljii Gardiner: An interview with Khairani Barokka





Elee Kraljii Gardiner converses via document with London-based poet Khairani Barokka about her second book of poems, Ultimatum Orangutan. Described by Ilya Kaminsky as one of “planetary poetics”, the collection considers ecosystems that move beyond biology and include language, indigeneity, disability and the non-human.

Elee Kraljii Gardiner: Okka, few books manage to find a title that works in one language, nevermind two. Can you share your thinking about the title?

Khairani Barokka: Having a bilingual title was a puzzle I loved finding the answer to. ‘Ultimatum’ here refers to the urgent, urgent, urgent need for colonial capitalism to end, lest extinction cover the world in a gaspless smothering even more, as it already has for centuries. ‘Orangutan’ is a compound word deriving from two Indonesian words: ‘orang’ means person or people, and ‘utan’ means forest. So when people say ‘orangutan’, they are speaking of the respect we give the animal, regarding them as peoples of the forest. And in a way, they are also referring to Indigenous peoples, unknowingly.

EKG: You develop the themes of orangutan>King Kong>cultural survival>disability>belonging>responsibility through the theme of colonialism and Indigenous survival so fluidly that the flow of the book exemplifies how these are multi-valenced ideas, overlapping systems. Even here in “Eropa” the orangutan slips into the poem camouflaged in sound.

There is no you without an us, oratorios
                     diminished from which the wealth is wrought,
                     spices and infants traded over raucous dinners,

                     doctors inspecting our bodies as curios.

What was your process for sequencing the collection, both practically and theoretically?

KB: Ha, thank you for that insight into the sonic presence ‘orangutan’ may have in ‘Eropa’. I don’t see any of the themes or categories you described as separate, ever. Thinking or feeling about them never lives in what I call my soulbody as separate. Yet we live in a world where they are treated as though separate, and that is a form of violence--that white gaze, that categorisation, that Maria Lugones (rest in peace) wrote of with respect to colonial naming and gender. So thank you also for recognising that continuity in the poetry. I think the sequencing of the poems in the book really came together once I’d written, last year, the titular poem, and once I understood the Terjaga (Indonesian word for ‘protected’ and also ‘awoken’) sections, which were originally one continuous four-part poem, to be section markers, in a sense. And then it’s about feeling out the musicality of how each poem ends and begins, and what parts harmonise so they can lead into the other, not just in affect but in content.

EKG: In “epitaph” is a couplet that is both an ars poetica and (what feels like) a survival strategy: 

whole languages dying while i hypocritically write in one
                     I refuse to speak with my mother.

The poem “barmouth” dreams of this resistance:

i close my eyes and imagine a bajau boy
who knows how to hold his breath until
the body quietly demands inhalation, who could survive

floods, heat, and isolation in white spaces
simply by going for the swims that are birthright,

each gulf a bay of earth-wound spilling welkin-tint
blood, a harbour in which to grieve and return

KB: Thank you for recognising survival strategies as part of our linguistic choices. I wanted very much to pay my respects to Bajau communities, without exoticising them, and I hope ‘barmouth’ approaches that ethic. I want indigenous communities to survive in ways that reflect passed-down wisdoms, without having to resort to selling our cultures, or having them wholly eclipsed by others.

EKG: The poem “gives me a pass” is a visit with your dead grandmother:

someone sitting on the edge of my bed,

looking gently at this startled face, and at the same moment
                    i realise: i’d forgotten to take my nightly medicines,
                    without which i might wake in agony,

and I tell you, stranger danger, shadow of god, gold wind,
                    angel-type, sparkle-shine, djinn,  my grandmother martini,
                    my grandmother sayang,   my any-one-of-the-dead,

                    i thank you from the very cavities of bones,
                    that perhaps you take inventory of travelling pills

that perhaps you are pharmacist of the vast euphonious night (p41)

That last line slays me. This poem takes place on the day you and I met, for the first and only time (so far) face-to-face. Am I right?

KB: I’m unsure if it was the exact day, but it was definitely during the trip I took to Vancouver during which I met you! And though some of my poems are fictional or contain fictional elements, everything in this poem happened to me. It’s happened a few times, as I intimate in the verse, and when it does--this awakening when I’ve forgotten my necessary night meds, which thankfully doesn’t happen often, accompanied by the distinct sense of a presence sitting at the end of my bed--I always feel grateful, and a little unnerved.

EKG: You work in many forms here: lists, an abecedarium, even a Golden Shovel. And your consideration of sound and anaphora and allusion are such a pleasure.

In “self-portrait as fern and stolen motorcar”, a riveting poem about the surrealism of cars abandoned in fields, these two lines gesture towards an integration of history and self as an artist: “there is a fern pattern in textiles,/the fern poem on cohesion, returning.” This seems to me an example of your facile movement from one system of knowledge into another and your ability to transport terms and ideas into equivalences—it’s inherent, not pedantic.

KB: Terima kasih banyak for your kind words, and I am so glad to read your last line, as it’s exactly what I wanted for the work. I think multiple systems of knowledge operate together all the time, especially as someone uprooted from where you come from, trying to make sense of a new place in terms that feel like home. In Minang culture--which is interwoven throughout Ultimatum Orangutan, from the cover including a photo of Tanah Datar to the book being dedicated to four of my Minangkabau elders--leaving and returning to your home village with wisdom and resources for your community is called merantau. And so there is at least, for me, the slightest bit of guilt alleviated in that my travelling is also an inherent part of my culture. It’s the returning that I think I’ll be working on my whole life, from continuously returning to Indonesia physically to giving back to my communities in whatever ways I can.

EKG: Your previous book Indigenous Species works similar themes of eco-destruction and cultural resistance through ideas of water and textiles (read about it here) It is a profoundly visual book with beautiful illustrations. Ultimatum Orangutan also has a fantastic cover—and a text description of the cover image is in the back for vision-impaired readers. I have never seen that before and want one in every book!

KB: Thank you so much. Indigenous Species is available in accessible e-book formats that contain cover descriptions; in fact, most of the books I’ve worked on do, by virtue of having the fortune to work with indie publishers that allow me to include them. Whether in co-editing Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back with Sandra Alland and Daniel Sluman, who obviously share an ethos of access, or for Rope and Ultimatum Orangutan. I think accessible e-book versions will be more likely to have cover descriptions, and though it isn’t always necessary to include cover descriptions in the print versions of projects, I see it more as a reminder to everyone that the books do exist in forms accessible to blind readers, and that all books should.

EKG: I had such a good time at your online launch in April with the friends and readers and translators who joined you. (Here’s a link to the launch and book site)

KB: So glad you enjoyed! I am always grasping at community, and it meant more than you know to have such a warm, supportive launch, with friends and family cheering on from various locations. Writing is a lonely pursuit, and even more so for us chronically ill writers, and even more so in a pandemic, when eugenicism is ramped up even more, and our perspectives as disabled people (and especially disabled migrants or people from exploited populations) are hardly evident in mainstream discourse. I’ve been fairly homesick, and when I get to visit Jakarta again, at the end of this year, it will have been two years. So I want to thank again Jane Commane and Angela Hicken from Nine Arches, Vahni Capildeo, Rishi Dastidar, Fitri Nganthi Wani and Eliza Vitri Handayani for reading their work, and everyone who attended, especially my family. It feels nice to say I’m a part of collectives such as Malika’s Poetry Kitchen for poetry, or Shadow Heroes for translation, or Jaringan Seni Perempuan (Women’s Art Network) in Indonesia, or to be working on the Ceritrans project with Indonesian creative partners. I am always learning from my peers.

EKG: I feel that in your work, Okka. Thank you for being in conversation with me. I’m grateful for your writing and thinking on these ideas.






Khairani Barokka is a Minang-Javanese writer and artist from Jakarta, currently based in London, whose work has been presented widely internationally. Her work centres disability justice as anti-colonial praxis. She is currently Research Fellow at University of the Arts London's Decolonising Arts Institute, Associate Artist at the National Centre for Writing (UK), and UK Associate Artist at Delfina Foundation. Among her honours, she has been Modern Poetry in Translation's Inaugural Poet-in-Residence, a UNFPA Indonesian Young Leader Driving Social Change, an Artforum Must-See, and an NYU Tisch Departmental Fellow. She is author of Rope (Nine Arches) and Indigenous Species (Tilted Axis), and co-editor of Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back (Nine Arches). Recent commissions include the ICA and Southbank Centre, and Okka is finishing an art and poetry commission for purchase by Wellcome Collection. She has just published poetry collection Ultimatum Orangutan (Nine Arches).

[Pic description: Black and white photo of an Indonesian woman with short hair, earrings, and a patterned dress, lying down on her front, pen in hand, ready to write. Pic credit: Derrick Kakembo.]


Annah: Nomenclature at the ICA


Elee Kraljii Gardiner is the author of two poetry books, Trauma Head and serpentine loop, and editor of the anthologies Against Death: 35 Essays on Living and V6A: Writing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. She is a director of Vancouver Manuscript Intensive.

[Pic description: Selfie taken at arm’s length of a white woman in a blue hoodie with wavy hair wearing a mask with geometric design in grey and navy with splotch of orange in front of blurred multi-coloured bookshelf.]



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