Friday, June 18, 2021

2021 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist interviews: Victoria Chang

Obit, Victoria Chang
Copper Canyon Press, 2020
2021 Griffin Poetry Prize • International Shortlist

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

Victoria Chang’s prior books are Barbie Chang, The Boss, Salvinia Molesta, and Circle. She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Sustainable Arts Foundation Fellowship, the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay di Castagnola Award, a Pushcart Prize, a Lannan Residency Fellowship, and a MacDowell Colony Fellowship. She lives in Los Angeles and is the program chair of Antioch’s low-residency MFA program.

The poems in Obit were originally prompted by grief, writing after the death of your mother. At what point did you realize you were working on a book?

I definitely didn’t think about a “book” at all during the writing process and tend not to in general. I think that by the time the writing makes its way to the computer in a Word document, I think that begins to start taking the shape of a manuscript, which isn’t really a book yet, but the editing process and making of a collection can take years (a combination of line edits while also working on the ghostly arc of a manuscript that forms at the same time of revision).

Both Obit and your prior collection, Barbie Chang, offer narrators that explore simultaneous perspectives of being deep within the centre and of the outside, looking in. How did the process of writing pieces for potential publication shift the ways in which you considered grief, if at all?

I mentioned this above, but I never think about writing “for publication.” I also try not to think about it as publication, but perhaps sharing. The system of publication is often beyond a writer’s control so I try not to spend too much time thinking about that until I decide to think about it, if that makes sense.

I like that this collection includes a series of tankas. What do you feel was possible through the form of the tanka that might not have been possible otherwise? What did working through the tanka allow?

I think any formal poems can be freeing for me. The more constraints I seem to have, the more fun I seem to have during the writing process. So sometimes I like to give myself constraints so that the language is the leader, not me or the ego. I also like the short form of the tanka which is just slightly extended over the haiku. I liked the short form poem so much I wrote a whole bunch of short poems for a new manuscript.

The catalogue copy for Obit cites how, through hearing the word “obit,” you were “moved by the strength of its sound, the long O and the hard T.” How important is sound on the page?

Sound is a part of poetry, of course. But it’s intertwined with many other things too so I think sound is a factor in the making of a line, fragment, poem, etc. For me, the writing process is very organic—I’m not really consciously thinking about things as I’m going.

Was there anything that writing through grief revealed that you weren’t expecting? Are the poems in Obit but the openings of a longer, ongoing process?

I think writing can reveal all sorts of things in the process—which is why making art is so fun. It is exploratory, a process. I’m not entirely sure what grief is at the end of the day. Maybe it just is and is here and once someone you care about dies, it’s always here. It’s a part of life, like life itself, which is just a process.

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

I wrote OBIT a while back, started it in 2016, so since then I’ve written a hybrid book of essays and art, and I have a new book of poems coming out in 2022.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

2021 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist interviews: Yusuf Saadi

Pluviophile, Yusuf Saadi
Nightwood Editions, 2020
2021 Griffin Poetry Prize • Canadian Shortlist

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

Yusuf Saadi won The Malahat Review’s 2016 Far Horizons Poetry Award and the 2016 Vallum Chapbook Award. At other times, his writing has appeared (or is forthcoming) in magazines including Brick, The Malahat Review, Vallum, Grain, CV2, Prairie Fire, PRISM international, Hamilton Arts & Letters, This, and untethered.  He is also an executive editor at Sewer Lid magazine. He holds an MA in English from the University of Victoria and currently resides in Montreal.

I’m curious as to your work with the sonnet. What first drew you to the sonnet, and what do you feel the form allowed that might not have been possible otherwise?

I was writing love poems — not for people as much as for things i.e. light, a hijab, etc. — and for whatever reason the sonnet as I use it (mine are more quasi-sonnets at best than real ones) felt right. It just seems like the perfect number of lines; it forces you to be compact, but there’s also so much room within its frames to mess around with sound and image. It always astounds me how versatile the form is; it’s incredible how much Yeats could pack into “Leda and the Swan,” an interpretation of the entire historical trajectory of Western civilization.

Pluviophile is your debut collection. What was the process of putting it together into a manuscript? How did the manuscript find shape into a book?

There isn’t a great origin story here; I followed the modest route of many writers. Initially, I was writing individual poems and sending them out to literary journals. I didn’t have a collection or central themes thought out while I was doing this — having an entire collection completed, yet alone published, seemed very far away. Once I had a bunch of individual poems, I published a chapbook with Vallum. Then once I had enough poems that it felt substantial, I thought, why not try to send it to some publishers? This was over about a seven-year span. It seemed to work out. My publisher, and particularly Silas White, is more responsible for the actual order of the poems in the collection — he saw a rhyme and reason for how the poems are placed whereas the initial manuscript’s order as I sent it was quite arbitrary. I did insist that the current first poem in the collection, Love Sonnet for Light, be the opening poem, as it’s one of the poems I’m happiest with. I also struggled a lot with the title of the collection — I wonder sometimes if people like it then try to shut that thought out.

What first brought you to poetry?

I always wanted to be a fiction writer as that’s mostly what I read when younger (and still mostly what I mostly read). When I took a few creative writing classes in my undergrad, writing poetry just felt more natural to me. I suspect it has to do with not having the responsibility of writing character or plot; the poem’s narrative can be more imagistic, more associative and non-linear. I think I also enjoy revising on the nitty-gritty level of individual words, syllables, and letters, which is what so much of writing and revising poetry is. The language itself is the focus. That’s not to say that fiction writers don’t do that, of course, but it feels easier to me to work at the line-level in, say, a 14-line poem, than a 300-page book.

So perhaps I should ask you of both poetry and fiction: what works of either do you see as influences on the poems in Pluviophile?

I’d say … Anne Michaels, Wallace Stevens, David Foster Wallace, Derek Mahon. It’s lame to say because I don’t know German and my Spanish is rudimentary, but Rilke and Borges and Marquez. I think in the background, also religious texts like the Koran.

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

The pandemic hasn’t been kind to my mental health or productivity. I have about 5 drafts of poems I’m working on. One of them is forthcoming in Brick this winter; it’s loosely based on a Bengali poet named Jibonanondo Das. I’ve a few other things starting to emerge, but I’m worried if I talk about them, I’ll never actually write them. I feel like I’ve spent a lot more time thinking and talking and proposing plans about writing over the last year than actually writing. It’s been really hard to find quiet around me and in my head lately — not sure if others are experiencing the same thing?

Friday, June 11, 2021

2021 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist interviews: Valzhyna Mort

Music for the Dead and Resurrected, Valzhyna Mort
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020
2021 Griffin Poetry Prize • International Shortlist

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

Valzhyna Mort is the author of Factory of Tears and Collected Body. Her work has been honoured with the Lannan Literary Fellowship for Poetry, an Amy Clampitt Residency, the Bess Hokin Prize from Poetry magazine, and the Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner Award. She is a recipient of the Gulf Coast Prize in Translation and a National Endowment for the Arts grant in translation projects. Born in Minsk, Belarus, she writes in English and Belarusian.

Your author biography mentions that you write in both English and Belarusian. How do the two sides of your language interact with each other? Do you approach your English writing different than your Belarusian writing? Are there subjects or projects you reserve for one language but not the other?

When I write, I reinvent English for myself and I also reinvent Belarusian for myself. Language of my poetry is intentional, articulated slowly, grotesquely. Neither English nor Belarusian is my first language. I’ve chosen both in order to reinvent myself because no literature in any language was expecting my arrival. In both languages, what I’m after is music. Language, for me, is a place of fluidity, exile, reinvention, humor, animal sounds, and the music of plain words.

Was there anything that writing through grief revealed that you weren’t expecting? Are the poems in Music for the Dead and Resurrected part of a longer, ongoing process?

I don’t think that in my book I was writing through grief. I write towards. Towards music, towards astonishment. A day of writing for me is a day of ardor, of exuberance, of love to every sound and thing. About unexpected things being revealed: Czelaw Milosz wrote that poetry is something quite indecent because it reveals a thing we didn’t know we had in us. A good day of writing is always a day of indecent revelations.

What is the process of putting together a manuscript? At what point in the process of writing the poems that became Music for the Dead and Resurrected did the shape of the larger manuscript begin to reveal itself?

It’s essential for a poet to have a sense of form. I think of a book as a form that can be likened to a short story (a long one!) or a musical piece in several parts. My process is, as with everything else, my intuition, my gut, my taste in music, in arrangement of space, my intuitive understanding of when to slow down and when to accelerate, when to tell a story and when to cast a spell, how to balance small and large, when to make a turn and when to return. And my favorite one: when to blow up all of these structures by turning on a blender during a concert; when to transform by starting to speak in moo and bah-bah-bah instead of words.

You mention that your process is intuitive. Does form emerge intuitively as well, or have you a sense, as you begin to work on a particular poem, of where you might wish to end up? Or is it a combination of both?

The poet emerges out of listening, inquiring, submitting to language and being carried away by it, out of attention. There's an emotion – a feeling of being human – and the depth of this feeling is defined precisely by how it resists the possibility of language. This feeling cannot be captured by language, but what about setting it free with language? A poet tries to set both free, language and emotion. As for ending up somewhere, I only wish to end up at the completion of the poem. What the poem searches for, from its first word, is the poem's end, its last words.

There is very much a sense of music and rhythm in your work. How did this emerge? Were you a musical child, or has this emerged through other means, whether learning an instrument, or catching the music of the lyric itself?

I have no ear for music but, since early childhood, I was tied to an accordion as to an anker or a sinker. I played accordion daily and also sang (in truth: silently opened mouth) in the Opera House in Minsk. My book explores how music was inherited by me from the history of violence and loss, both familial and national. How music became a vessel for my family's trauma. Music for me is the other side of everything that is real and tangible in my past: Liszt's La Campanella is my mother's home dress.

Have you been writing much in the way of poetry since Music for the Dead and Resurrected was completed? What have you been working on since?

I've been writing but since I have no sense of where I would end up, I'd rather not give you any details.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

2021 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist interviews: Srikanth Reddy

Underworld Lit, Srikanth Reddy
Wave Books, 2020
2021 Griffin Poetry Prize • International Shortlist

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

Srikanth Reddy’s previous book, Voyager, was named one of the best books of poetry in 2011 by The New Yorker, The Believer, and National Public Radio; his first collection, Facts for Visitors, received the 2005 Asian American Literary Award for Poetry. Reddy’s poetry and criticism have appeared in Harper’s, The Guardian, The New York Times, Poetry, and numerous other venues; his book of criticism, Changing Subjects: Digressions in Modern American Poetry, was published in 2012.

A recipient of fellowships from the Creative Capital Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts, he is currently professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Chicago.

Underworld Lit is very much constructed as a book-length project. How did the project first present itself to you, and what did you learn through the process? 

The book kind of happened by accident, beginning with the (long-awaited) news that my wife, the poet Suzanne Buffam, was pregnant. Three days later, I received a phone call from the health services at the university where I work, informing me that I had cancer. So, as I’ve often said since then, birth and death were suddenly in very close proximity in my life, and in the most unexpected way. To make things even more surreal, it seems that my own kind of cancer, a malignant melanoma, is extremely rare among people of Indian descent. So things were feeling sort of freaky for a while there.

At the same time, I was teaching a class called “Readings in World Literature,” and feeling sort of haunted by the common ‘set-piece’ in the epic poetry of various cultures, where the poem’s protagonist has to descend into the underworld and emerge, hopefully intact, with some sort of knowledge that would help them on their way. So I began to think about my own experience—birth, death, world lit—in terms of this kind of descent, but in a comical sort of way. I hardly felt heroic during my own medical treatment, and maybe even less so as I fumbled my way through parenting a newborn. So slapstick, or at least some sort of droll satire, seemed like the right tone for such dark material.

The book, I guess, began out of this midlife crisis on steroids. I thought, why not write a sort of autofiction—but with the freedom to depart from ‘reality’—as a diary of a bad year, told by an untenured junior faculty member who’s dealing with fatherhood and his own medical treatment while teaching a class called “Underworld Lit”? Now, with regard to the last part of your question, what did I learn from this process, I can’t really say, but that’s how the book sort of bubbled into existence!

Given your exploration of form throughout 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 the lyric essay?  

With the benefit of hindsight, I think I can see now that the poem is ‘about’ formlessness in various ways. There’s the dread of death, which is one’s passage from bodily form into what looks like formlessness. My wife would explain to our daughter, when she was a toddler, that we don’t disappear when we die, but we become other things, like a star or a flower; that seemed to work, because those forms were legible to Mira, but to me as an adult, I couldn’t imagine a form for myself if my medical treatment failed. (Fortunately it didn’t, so I’m out of the woods now). The prose poem, more than a lineated poem, dwells on the edge of form and formlessness. You can’t discern a lyric form there, but it isn’t formless, either. That’s why we call it a prose poem. There’s some deep form at work there.

These issues of form and formlessness surface in the book through the figure of the Rorschach inkblot, reincarnation, translation, and various other topics. But in the end, I’m not sure what to call the book itself—prose or poetry, or something else altogether. I guess it’s just writing!

I’m curious about the shift in your work from the more straightforward lyric to this hybrid of the lyric essay and first-person confessional. Do you see this collection as an evolution away from that prior mode, or simply an extension of your ongoing work?

I think probably I’ve felt uncertain about the poetic line as a unit of literary composition for some time now. I mean, I deeply revere so much lyric poetry, but I myself have trouble writing a line without feeling somehow fraudulent. It feels so artificial, as a way of breaking language, which is of course what makes it so beautiful and artifactual and resonant—but I myself don’t feel capable of doing that to language with any confidence. (Of course, some poets might also say that there’s nothing more natural than the line as a unit of language and meaning, but I won’t even go into all that now). The main thing, I’d say, is that I write in prose not because I feel like it’s the more ‘authentic’ form, but rather because it’s the only form that’s available to me as a writer at the moment.

This weird psychological complex about lineation began, I think, sometime after 9/11, oddly enough. Once the towers fell, and following the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and all of the carnage and disaster that ensued, I somehow found it impossible to write a line of poetry. I could write sentences and paragraphs and prose poems and in any number of other ways, but lyric form sort of felt beyond me, like I’d experienced a kind of aphasia. Looking back, I can see that’s why I turned to literary erasure for my next book. I could make poetry—even lineated poetry—by erasing, rather than writing, as a means of producing language. But that’s a whole other story.

I’d like to write lineated poetry again someday, though, and I think maybe translation might be a way to ease my way into that. Translating a line of poetry feels much more achievable to me than writing a line of poetry. Now I just have to figure out what to translate. Then someday, who knows, maybe I’ll write a sonnet or something!

How did you first begin your work in translation, and what do you feel this practice brings to your own writing? You suggest that translation can act as a kind of prompt, but have you been aware of any deeper influences? 

I’ve translated little things here and there, but maybe it would be more interesting to talk about how I came to the translation in this book. To make a short story long, I’d been reading up on the underworlds of various cultures in different places, including the internet, where I came across a terrific little website called “hell online” or something like that. It’s full of information about the Egyptian underworld, the Chinese underworld, and so on. And there I found mention of a Chinese tale, about a minor local official who’s called down to the underworld to answer for war crimes from a previous life. So then I had to find that story—because in lots of ways I could identify with this character, as someone who feels weirdly and deeply complicit in injustices that seem “far away,” and I wanted to learn more about what happens in the old Chinese tale. But when I found it in the university library, it was only translated into French, which I can barely understand!

So I decided to translate Chen’s tale into English, and the translation in Underworld Lit is a slapstick version of that whole process. Obviously things go quite a bit off the track. But that was the fun of it, and in the end, I included a more ‘faithful’ translation in the back of the book. It’s really a great little story, though I can’t claim to have done it poetic justice. In the end, I think I learned to trust in error from the whole experience. It can produce the most amazing effects.

Do you find your reading literary works in languages other than English to be wildly different? Does each language bring with it a different element that catches your interest? Are there even structural elements in another language that don’t appeal to you as much in English? 

Reading works in other languages is something I don’t do very much of—I mostly rely on translations, for reading the K’iche Popol Vuh, or the Egyptian Amduat, or the Chinese tale of Chen, for example. But I do love to compare the transliterations of the original K’iche with the word-for-word translations into English of, say, Allen Christenson. You can see some of the complexities and impasses that a translator of classical Mayan poetry must face, and you can also find some wonderful literary effects in those word-for-word translations that get lost when the translation gets polished and packed into ‘presentable’ English. The serial repetition of K’iche word order, for example, feels so much more elemental and unrelenting than an English translation of the Popol Vuh can really convey—it’s like Gertrude Stein in places! And of course Chinese word-order is very different from what we do with English—with all sorts of beautiful and haunting consequences when you look at a word-for-word translation of a Chinese text. The same could be said of so many different languages and writing systems: hieroglyphics, cuneiform, there’s so much out there. So finding some structural elements of poetry in other languages—especially ‘dead’ or endangered languages—can bring unexpected resources and devices into one’s work in English, at least in my own experience, absolutely.

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

I haven’t written a word of poetry since I finished the book and launched it into the Covoid. I’ve just been sort of vegetating under lockdown and trying to stay on top of my inbox. People email a lot more when they have nowhere to go! But I’m thinking toward a series of lectures about poetry for the Bagley Wright series at Wave Books. It will be a series of talks about poetry as a technology of feeling, with lectures on wonder from Homer to Ronald Johnson, on loneliness in Japanese poets from Saigyo to Basho, and on devotion in the ghazal tradition from Hafez to Ghalib. Now I just have to figure out what to say about all this!

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Primitive Information Episode 7 : David Hadbawnik interviews Chris Vitiello


The seventh episode of David Hadbawnik’s Primitive Information podcast is now online!

Chris Vitiello is a writer, critic, and performer based in Durham. He’s also the Poetry Fox, writing over 27,000 custom, on-demand poems on vintage typewriters at events over the last eight years. He took his performance installation, “The Language is Asleep” to ArtPrize9 in 2017, where he wrote and gave away nearly 12,000 one-line poems on dictionary pages over a 28-day endurance project at the Grand Rapids Art Museum. His critical writing garnered a 2017 Rabkin Prize for Arts Journalism. More recently he’s launched the Writing Cabinet, which combines a fortune-telling cabinet with a confessional to produce responses to a visitor’s wishes, secrets, fears, and sorrows. He’s written three books of poetry, including Irresponsibility (2008) and Obedience (2012), both on Ahsahta Press.

This interview with Chris Vitiello was conducted on May 11, 2021.  @chrisvitiello71  @thepoetryfox  @thepoetryfox  @thewritingcabinet

Saturday, June 5, 2021

George Stanley : Xavier




Dark curls,
dark, bright eyes
above his mask.

Slender arms,
making salads,
hands out of sight

below the counter.

Fingers nimble
set up the machine
push it forward

for a card's tap. 

Dark, intelligent eyes
above his mask.

Eyes may meet,
but ne'er a glint
of recognition shines
absent our faces.






A native of San Francisco, George Stanley [photo credit: Cath Morris] has lived in BC since 1971. He has published ten books of poetry, the most recent are After Desire (2013), North of California St. (2014), and West Broadway (with George Bowering’s Some End) (2018), all from New Star Books of Vancouver, and a recent chapbook, Love Is Not an Algorithm (2020), from above/ground press.

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