Monday, May 30, 2022

2022 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist interviews: Douglas Kearney

Sho, Douglas Kearney
Wave Books, 2021
2022 Griffin Poetry Prize • International Shortlist

interviewed by rob mclennan

The 2022 Griffin Poetry Prize will be announced on June 15, 2022.

Douglas Kearney [photo credit: Bao Phi] has published seven books, most recently Sho (2021), a National Book Award, Pen American, and Minnesota Book Award finalist. Buck Studies (2016) was the winner of the Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Award, the CLMP Firecracker Award for Poetry, and silver medalist for the California Book Award (Poetry). Kearney’s collection of writing on poetics and performativity, Mess and Mess and (2015), was a Small Press Distribution Handpicked Selection, and Starts Spinning (2019), a chapbook of poetry. His work is widely anthologized, and he is published widely in magazines and journals. Kearney teaches Creative Writing at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities where he is a McKnight Presidential Fellow. Born in Brooklyn, raised in Altadena, CA, he lives with his family in St. Paul, MN.

You’ve described your work as a kind of “performative typography,” a phrase that just sings across a whole range of possibilities. How do you feel this element of your work has evolved across the length and breadth of your work-to-date?

Thank you for this question. I’d argue that any typeset poem is a designed object; but when the design hews to more conventional typography (in English, say, left margin aligned, consistent point sizing, etc), a practiced reader perhaps doesn’t notice the decisions they’re making about where to begin, proceed through, and end a reading of a poem. When I think of what I’ve been calling performative typography, I mean to mean poems that make us conscious of our active participation as readers and the inherent agency of that activity. Most of my development in this vein has paired technology with compositional possibility. The bulk of my praxis has used page layout software and, as such, has pushed a bit at the idea of spaciality as a means of creating associations even when sentences do not. It has also been important to me to use similar typographic styling within the performative typography poems to assert similarities between those and the more conventionally-arranged ones.

Where I find myself now—and these aren’t in Sho, though there are some published on the internet—is in a closer conversation with hip-hop sampling techniques. These poems are more truly collaged from found sources, marking my interest in the textural as well as the textual.  For these poems, I compose them in photoediting software, often revised from freehand drafts in my journals.

There is very much a sense of music and rhythm in your work, one that plays off such wonderful collisions and contusions of rhythm and vernacular. Do you see this as an element of performance? How did this emerge?

I’ve grown up listening to hip-hop, so what you describe richly as collisions and contusions has accompanied my own life almost long as I can remember. Yet, hip-hop music expressed through rap felt close enough to the kinds of rhetorical performances that featured in my Black household and block that I understood it simultaneously as folk music and commercial music. I sometimes have to remind myself how dynamic and weird it is to hold those two characterizations as the music and culture were developing in real time with my listening.

Another important aspect of collision and contusion (a new C&C music factory!) was that where I grew up—Altadena, CA—was nestled right in the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains, northeast of downtown Los Angeles. Sometimes when we would drive around, the valley would make the radio station signals careen into one another. Generic and cultural interruption were features of my radio listening, an audio equivalent to seeing signage in Spanish, Armenian, and Chinese logograms while looking out the backseat window of a car.

Your work has long been known for an engagement with a variety of political and social concerns. How do you feel your response has evolved over the space of your published work?

When I first started, I think I was deeply invested in the fiction that I had all of the answers. This led to a style in which I wasn’t trying to understand people—including myself—rather I wanted to project certitude in a way that diminished its power. Understand, I’m not interested in creating ambivalence when I don’t feel it. Like: white supremacist-driven domestic terrorism is f_ _ king evil. Certainly. Yet I am interested in blending/bending tones to create unsettling effects. I want myself and my reader to think about what we assume is the response that makes us comfortable and what happens when we question that response.

I find myself pushing back against false equivalencies, it’s why I’m wary of simile and metaphor. I’m often less driven by literary effects that remove the reader from the conscious act of reading, seeing letterforms on a page, so I find myself being more deliberate and sparing of images than I used to be. But I don’t know how programmatic I am about that. Sho draws poems from as far back as 2008 and while I did revise the poems to speak to each other, I wanted many of them to retain their particularities and peculiarities. Thorns.

Still, one of the things that I find exciting about a praxis of intentional constraint is that when I change constraints, I’ve rewired my approach. I once wrote an opera in a counterfeit language. It was my MFA Thesis at California Institute of the Arts (it was called Jungaeyé then, but it’s published as Benbannik). In the act of creating the language (‘Ngmbo), I realized it wasn’t enough for me to focus on words for nouns and verbs. The real complexity was imagining prepositions and conjunctions, prefixes and suffixes. When I finished the first version back in 2004 and wrote in English again, I found that my sense of syntax had fundamentally changed. It was wild!

If syntax is a significant component of how a culture organizes its sense of the world, how it presents that ordering and its values. I find myself treating syntax—thus, prosody—as a political and social concern. I imagine, then, that the content and execution of my poems is that engagement your question names.

The beauty of working any art form for an extended period, naturally, is in the realization of just how much we might not know, and creating as a way through which to discover. I’m curious if you had any particular poets or writers that prompted, or even confirmed, some of these thoughts or directions in your writing?

Harryette Mullen changed everything for me. When I read S*PeRM**K*T, I realized that a poem could focus on the systems of rhetorical play associated with the Black praxis of signifyin(g). A poem with this orientation didn’t have to center images, but language itself as a site of dynamic emotional, intellectual, and political engagement. Pun, repetition & revision, and irony became the devices that meant the most to me and they’ve animated my poetry ever since. I had encountered signifyin(g) in my parent's house, parts of the community, and hip-hop, but Mullen’s work struck me as the apotheosis of it.

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

As far as poetry, I’m working on two manuscripts. I Believe I Been Science Fiction Always, which actually coalesced at the same time as Sho took shape. IBIBSFA pushes the visual poetry absent from Sho into a direction that I find as textural as it is textual. There’s a series of poems that imagine armor pieces via Afro-Diasporic musical practices; several poems combining image and text to consider the preposition “over” as it relates to cultural practice and tropes; a long poem that works with and about time by way of turntablism. Fun stuff. The other manuscript is called Mysteries! Give Me Power. The sentences that seem to want to cleave together in that manuscript have been a trip to think and feel through.

I’ve a collection of craft/critical writing—the lectures I wrote for the Bagley Wright Lecture Series. That book is called Optic Subwoof, and Wave is putting that out this fall. There’s stuff in there about banter as self-destruction, visuality in poetry, taxonomies for violence in poetry, and my lifelong ambition to be a werewolf. I’m working on a children’s opera and a monograph on dramaturgy as a strategy for listening to Black music. Fun!

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

2022 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist interviews: Sharon Dolin and Gemma Gorga

Late to the House of Words, Sharon Dolin, translated from the Catalan written by Gemma Gorga
Saturnalia Books, 2021
2022 Griffin Poetry Prize • International Shortlist

interviewed by rob mclennan

The 2022 Griffin Poetry Prize will be announced on June 15, 2022.

Sharon Dolin is the author of six books of poetry, most recently Manual for Living (2016), Whirlwind (2012), and Burn and Dodge (2008), which won the AWP Donald Hall Prize for Poetry.  She is also the author of a book of translations, Gemma Gorga’s Book of Minutes (2019), and a prose memoir, Hitchcock Blonde (2020).  The recipient of a 2021 NEA Fellowship in Translation, she lives in New York City, where she is Associate Editor of Barrow Street Press and directs Writing About Art in Barcelona.

Gemma Gorga was born in Barcelona in 1968.  She has a PhD in Philology from the University of Barcelona, where she is Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Spanish Literature.  She has published seven collections of poetry in Catalan: Ocellania (1977), El desordre de les mans (2003), Instruments òptics (2005), Llibre dels minuts (2006) which won the 2006 Premi Miquel de Palol, Diafragma (2012), Mur (2015); and Viatge al centre (2020).  She is also the author of a prose journal of her time spent in India entitled Indi visible (2018).

I suppose this is a kind of chicken-or-egg question,but what was the process of simultaneously building both a book of translation and a selected poems? Were the poems first gathered for the sake of selection, or for the sake of translation? Were there questions you had to solve that might not have emerged otherwise?

Sharon Dolin: I was already acquainted with Gemma Gorga’s work through my translation of her book of prose poems Llibre dels minuts (2006), which appeared as Book of Minutes in 2019. So when I decided I wanted to continue translating her poems written in lines in 2017, I first began by translating her then most recent book Wall (Mur, 2015), but soon realized that certain poems were more successful in English than others. It then occurred to me that a Selected Poems might be a better idea and so I began to translate poems from her other books. Much of my selection process was by intuition: That is, I read through the poems and decided which ones appealed to me as a reader; then I worked on the translations. If I was not satisfied with the poem in English, I discarded it in favor of another. At some point, I believe early on, I had chosen the title for the collection, Late to the House of Words, a phrase from the poem “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall,” and that choice led me to make sure I translated any poems that were directly concerned with issues of language. Of course, I had already noticed a preponderance of poems that were in love with words, with the dictionary, with the richness as well as the limits of language, so I intentionally highlighted those poems in this Selected Poems. Gemma Gorga was a delight to work with and seemed very happy with the choices I had made for this selection from her six books.

Gemma Gorga: The book wasn’t conceived as a simultaneous work. Actually, Sharon explained to me her idea of gathering poems from all my previous books and arming a representative anthology. Of course, I couldn’t be more happy and grateful. But, from that moment on, this book was her work: she selected the poems, translated them and wrote a prologue which I think is key to understand the collection. But, as you can see, my role during the process has been rather discreet.

Gemma, having yourself done translation work, how was it seeing your own work shift through translation? How involved were you, if at all, with Sharon through the process?

Gemma Gorga: The first impression is kind of vertigo, like living in a recursive world: while I translate a poet, I’m being translated at the same time by another poet. And while I, doing my own translation, have to solve all the tricky aspects inherent to language, I know that my translator will have to solve this same kind of problems.

But, at the same time, I chose not to be too involved in Sharon’s translation process, because a translator needs a lot of space and freedom of movements. Of course, I tried to answer all her consultations, but without interfering too much in the final solution.

What other Catalan poets should one be reading to further expand upon the context of Gemma Gorga’s work more generally?

Sharon Dolin: I do think it’s important to read the poetry of Francesc Parcerisas, who was one of Gorga’s teachers. About other Catalan poets, I defer to Gorga herself.

Gemma Gorga: Catalan poets are, of course, my closest tradition, my immediate reference. Names such as Joan Vinyoli, Maria Mercè Marçal or Màrius Sampere are the dearest to me, since I grew up as a poet under their shadow. This said, since very young age I was eager to know other traditions, so I began to read as much translated poetry as I could. And this turned out a fundamental school.

Gemma, given your engagement with English-language writing, have you noticed an influence upon your writing in Catalan? Or are you able to keep those trains of thought separated?

Gemma Gorga: I see translation as a great school to learn and improve my own writing. We generally think of translation as a constant struggle with “impossibilities”, while I see it as an infinite source of “possibilities”, a place where I find solutions that I have never thought of before. Being bilingual Catalan-Spanish all my life has taught me to take advantage of the richness that each language contains and has made me realize how interesting it is to build bridges between languages. So I don’t want to keep those trains of thought separated; after all, they are heading to the same place.

Friday, May 20, 2022

2022 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist interviews: David Bradford

Dream of No One but Myself, David Bradford
Brick Books, 2021
2022 Griffin Poetry Prize • Canadian Shortlist

interviewed by rob mclennan

The 2022 Griffin Poetry Prize will be announced on June 15, 2022.

David Bradford [photo credit: Sarah Bodri] is a poet, editor, and organizer based in Tiohtià:ke (Montréal). He is the author of several chapbooks, including Nell Zink is Damn Free (Blank Cheque Press, 2017) and The Plot (House House Press, 2018). His work has appeared in The Capilano Review, The Tiny, filling Station, The Fiddlehead, Carte Blanche, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA from the University of Guelph and is a founding editor of House House Press. Dream of No One but Myself is his first book.

Dream of No One but Myself is very much constructed as a book-length project, writing around the live and loss of your father. What prompted you to tell the story of your father, and that loss, through the form of the book-length poem, or even poetry at all?

You know, I had a mind that, if I was going to come at this flashpoint in my family history, in my family’s historical debris field, I was gone really come at it, so as to only do it once. Because writing, iterating, editing, presenting this book has been to learn a few things all over again: you can just keep cycling back through the process of these kinds of family histories, revelations, realizations. They stick, but the body forgets their feeling a bit, can want them unlocked all again. So, if I was going to do this, show the depth of the mess, I was going to dig deep enough to feel that maybe the digging could never end and you had to just call it—the end, that is. The openness of a hybrid, braided together bunch of coordinated, iterative forms all somehow poetry gave me room to explore the levels and questions I felt I needed to shape that kind of book.

So, an element of that I wanted to shape at the book level was sparked and organized by the felt experience of the sick trick of the dead, abusive parent: the way there were things about him I could only safely wade through, accept, empathize with once he had passed. Things that leave me ready to let the dead him back into my life but not the live him, were that an option. Basically, the insights of this book required death, and their staying power depends on it.

With that in mind, I think this book nurtures a relationship with haunting—a coming to terms tensioned by the impossibility, for me, of coming to terms with him when there was still a person to come to terms with. And the terms of that tension haunt themselves: the attempts below, the attempts above, the attempts out over there, haunted by the attempts over here. The ectoplasm spilling over from one form—one rip and cut and suture—to the next, to get goofy about it. There’s an element of letting it all through, then channeling these literally unspeakable tensions in the spectrum of ways all of this history is encountered and re-encountered, going through those motions knowing where they can’t go, to see where they can and can’t go, to put a reader through those motions too. To take readers through a spectral, gestural record of channeling the wake and drift of this personal, historical accrual, this urge to do some magic on it.

The uncontainable nature of this kind of family histories that comes back around and around, has no final answer, maybe just an end to the questions—poetry gave me a lot of room to explore the impulses all that entailed for me.

What do you think the form of the poem allowed you to articulate that might not have been possible had you worked the same material through the form of a memoir, or even a novel?

The thing about poetry for me is mostly permission to encourage my thinking to give in to the forces that give the genre its heft—the attention and tension.

The family stuff in this book started as a hulking lyrical essay, but I didn’t like any of the options before me for taking that work into a nonfiction publishing space. It didn’t feel like nonfiction processes would get me as far as I wanted to get with using up this material, going all in with the mutual haunting, bidding that stuff goodbye.  That initial lyrical essay form also felt too editorialized for this irresolvability I was trying pattern, move on from, document: the essay pulled all the emotional strings, it tried to get the words right (even as it said it didn’t believe in the right words), and as is, it was kind of unbearable. It took a while to put together, but it felt like the surface, or the first layer.

So, turning to poetry—first with the idea of the soft erasures, the grey-and-black versioning technique—got me to keep digging, keep layering and re-arranging, keep growing the verbal and non-verbal gestures that left the record of this material feeling just barely exhausted (I hope), and gave its tattered, lossy fabric its due.

I guess my idea or ideal of poetry gave me the space to contain and really go after the stakes of that effort in a way non-poetic forms didn’t feel like they would.

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 think about the fraughtness of the decision-making processes involved in holding this kind of family stuff, family debt, family mess together—how much I ask readers to go through that process with this book—and I think my intense attention to sound, and working that out on the page over the last couple of decades, helped prepare me for that. Sound is so important for me, but same as the fraughtness, you can at best lay out and hedge for possible readings, give the reader some tools to work with in sounding out these poems.

But no matter the tools—line breaks, half rhymes, white space on the line, the careful aeration of erasures, the propellent or halting use of sometimes jarring periods—something of what these pieces sound like to me, or sound like coming from me, is always lost on the page. The beauty in that is something is always gained, too: the way it sounds to the reader, the decisions they’ll make in hearing these pieces out.

I guess that’s one big difference: the reader’s in charge on the page. It makes me want to hear them read what they hear. Because I can’t really sound that out myself.

Was there anything that writing through grief revealed that you weren’t expecting? Are the poems in Dream of No One but Myself part of a longer, ongoing process?

I think the text-book nature of the abuse came for me a bit. Some of these things you take to thinking about them as just “difficult” or “not good.” But calling them abuse can take a minute, or at least it did for me and my mother, both individually and together.

One embarrassing thing about trauma, particularly amidst and in the aftermath of contexts where you’re just going through the motions of it, is it’s true form sort of hides from you, then reveals itself plainly. There were lots of those moments in the process of writing this book.

A maybe even fleshier thing that revealed itself, though: how little my mother and I understood—how little we could understand, given our orientation to him—how few words we had, and how little healthcare was truly available to my father in terms of what he was dealing with mentally. A key part of the process for this book was asking my mother to confirm certain details over and over again. Some of the ups and downs that were challenging him emerged more clearly in those talks. And the complete uselessness of the institutions at this disposal, same as at other times in his life, also emerged more clearly, if unsurprisingly.

In terms of a longer, ongoing process: I really, warmly, deeply hope the answer is no. I’ve done a lot of thinking and growing out of the thoughts I laid out in for this book, but in terms of writing, this feels like it’s it for me. The whole point was to get to where it was done for me, even if, in a greater context, it might never be done for me.

Have you been writing much in the way of poetry since Dream of No One but Myself was completed? What have you been working on since?

For better or worse, I jumped right in to the next thing when I completed my penultimate draft of the book in spring 2018.

I had the idea to do something less personal, maybe lighter. But that very quickly turned into Bottom Rail on Top, poems about dominant Black and white histories of Blackness in the antebellum South set against the day-to-day of the personal present—my present—that mediates it.

It’s a two-hander, in a sense: it brings together two strands of poetic sequences, popping back and forth between the experience of learning about and arranging all of these big and small Black histories and places and their echoes and contrasts in comparison with my life, the way my body does and doesn’t carry, the way I do and don’t want it to carry, the legacy of that past. It’s a project first built on a lot of the conflation I saw at play in Black radical theory that’s had a major impact on my work: the way a straight line is often drawn from slave narratives to, say, the Harlem Renaissance and then to us now. And in a way, I believe in that line. But I also believe that so much of my life—even amidst the racism and mindfucks and creative rub of being this kind of body in this kind of modern world—looks a lot like mastry, to borrow Kerry James Marshall’s phrase. So many material itches, so many supply chains ending at my door, so many platforms, so much modern self-making, so much funding, so much stuff, etc. Or to put it another way a bit more couched in disparities among Black people in the present, I need to acknowledge what it means that I’ve been called upon to speak, sometimes on behalf of… And as Hortense Spillers and Fred Moten have articulated crucially but too occasionally, that call means I’ve already become estranged from some of conditions I’ve been called upon to articulate. The problems of that estrangement, alongside some of the important echoes I describe above, are things I wanted to explore and describe on the page. Among a lot of other things to do with some of the ways Black folx formulate Blackness for themselves outside of the monolithic.

So, there’s a lot more I could say, but I worked on that a couple of years, then worked on it some more with Diasporic theorist Michelle M. Wright, which was an invaluable experience. And now I’m entering the editing stages with Cecily Nicholson, thinking about a few things we might add to it. The book should be out in fall of 2023.

Monday, May 16, 2022

2022 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist interviews: Liz Howard

Letters in a Bruised Cosmos, Liz Howard
McClelland & Stewart, 2021
2022 Griffin Poetry Prize • Canadian Shortlist

interviewed by rob mclennan

The 2022 Griffin Poetry Prize will be announced on June 15, 2022.

Liz Howard’s [Photo credit: Ralph Kolewe] debut collection Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent won the 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize, was shortlisted for the 2015 Governor General’s Award for poetry, and was named a Globe and Mail top 100 book. Her poetry has appeared in Canadian Art, The Fiddlehead, Poetry Magazine, and Best Canadian Poetry 2018. Howard received an Honours Bachelor of Science with High Distinction from the University of Toronto, and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph. She is of mixed settler and Anishinaabe heritage. Born and raised on Treaty 9 territory in northern Ontario, she currently lives in Toronto.

Your debut collection managed a great deal of critical attention, including winning the Griffin Poetry Prize. Did you feel any kind of pressure when attempting to move beyond the poems in that collection to compose something new? Or were you already well on your way into the new book?

After my first book, the question of what I would do next was often posed to me, especially after all the aforementioned attention. The success of that book was exciting, affirming, and overwhelming but also invited criticism about my worth. After a time, I reconciled myself to the fact that whatever I did it would be held up against the unexpected success of the first and found lacking. This gave me some permission to “write whatever I wanted”. When I was a student in Dionne Brand’s poetry workshop she talked about bringing forward whatever she felt wasn’t adequately addressed in one book into the next. I had also received some criticism about the first book not being accessible. In the second book I wanted to work with direct address, to write about my lived experiences in a less coded way, and to curtail my habit of linguistic pyrotechnics (failed somewhat on that count).

I completely agree with Brand’s suggestion of continuing a conversation or thought: to write simply isn’t a matter of addressing the perceived failures of prior work, but a consideration of evolution, even as one might engage with certain themes or concerns in an ongoing way. Do you approach your work in terms of ongoingness, or a kind of progression or evolution? Or are you working from manuscript to manuscript, poem to poem, to get to that next point?

In my writing practice I’m mostly focused on trying to get something, anything down on the page. I do a lot of “free”, “automatic”, or “stream-of-consciousness” writing, filling up pages of my notebook. Over several weeks I will return to these passages and find phrases, lines, images and so on that I can use to build a poem. I have the disposition of a scavenger, making use of what is on hand, and what I am reading and my larger concerns and daily life also enter my writing. When I get to the stage where I am putting a manuscript together I do have a sense in mind of how it might be in conversation with my prior work. I also have an urgency to work against the limit of my abilities. When I’d go out exploring in the bush as a kid I’d often be looking as far ahead as I could, trying to see places where the outline of trees thinned against the sky. I knew this meant that there could be a lake or some sort of clearing there and I felt compelled to go and see if I was right. I have a similar sensation when I’m writing. Pushing further in an experimental sort of way (hypothesis: a lake is there) to see what is on the other side. Sometimes it’s a lake and sometimes it’s a void. I find both interesting.

Much of the collection explores your attempts to reconcile your relationship with your father, from his absence during your childhood, to your eventual reconnection mere days prior to his death. What was it that prompted you to work through this material through the form of the poem? What is it you think the form of the poem allowed that might not have been possible otherwise?

Unfortunately, my father died 20 minutes after I arrived at the hospital. I was hoping for at least a day but that was not in the cards. He had resurfaced in Halifax in poor health and had reached out to family for records in order to receive health care. One night I received a call from my aunt saying that he was in hospital and in a coma and that she was flying to be with him. I asked if it would be okay for me to fly out as well and booked a flight for that morning. When I landed and turned my cell signal back on I had texts from aunt saying to get there as soon as possible. I got a cab and the driver tried to engage me in friendly conversation about where I was flying in from and what had brought me to Halifax. I tried to be polite and kept my answers as general as possible but when he continued to press I had to explain what was happening and he got quiet after that. When I managed to find the ICU I saw my father for the first time. That moment defies description for me but in a way it was like seeing myself. I resemble my mother in many ways but everything I found strange (not necessarily in a bad way) about my face was there in my father’s. A few minutes after I arrived a nurse announced that he was “in the process of actively dying”. After he passed I decided to stay in Halifax to help my aunt with body and funeral arrangements. I was in Halifax for a week, staying by myself at a bed and breakfast across from the hospital. I had a lot of time to think and I started writing and the writing took the form of a letter to a friend. After I sent the letter (email) I found myself returning to it. It was only a couple of degrees removed from a raw accounting of that time and the larger context it unfolded within. When you, rob, asked me a few times via email for work for your online poetry journal DUSIE I tried to edit the letter into something resembling a poem. I didn’t know if it was a poem. I’d never written anything like it. Who was going to tell me it wasn’t a poem, though? After it was published a number of people reached out to me to say how much they loved it and were touched by it. When I was invited to give readings the audience would often connect deeply with that poem. 

Why did I explore all of this in poetry? I think poetry allows for compression, uncertainty, and the unsaid to exist simultaneously which mirrors how I seem to experience the world. Poetry allows me to transmit some of that experience in the most authentic way possible, as a kind of offering, invitation, or inquiry.

How do you feel different, if at all, as a poet between your first collection to this one?

How do I feel differently as poet in regards to this second book? I feel as though, through trial, error, and great effort, I have widened the scope of what is possible for me in terms of form and what I can be in conversation with. I’ve also come to a realization that my work has a life entirely outside of my own, and I’m grateful to those who have told me that my work impacted them in positive way, be that creatively or in being seen.

Was there anything that writing through grief revealed that you weren’t expecting? Are the poems in Letters in a Bruised Cosmos part of a longer, ongoing process?

I suppose that I was relieved (a kind of unexpected happiness—that’s not quite the word but it’ll do) that I was able to sublimate my pain, grief, into something that spoke to other people. I wasn’t sure if the book was too much or not enough. I often have dreams where the flesh of my arms falls away and the raw, exposed nerves are dangling out in front of me. Writing this book was like composing with those raw, dangling nerves. Would I be able to have the manual “control” to craft something that was more than a reinscription of my personal hardships? By the time the manuscript was finalized I felt that I had accomplished more than that through elevated language, historical consciousness, and scaling—from invoking the quantum, the biological, the personal, the sociohistorical and the cosmological.

I would say yes; the poems of Letters are part of an ongoing process.

Have you been writing much in the way of poetry since Letters in a Bruised Cosmos was completed? What have you been working on since?

I have had new poems published in The Ampersand, Canadian Literature, Room Magazine and The Capilano Review.

I am currently working on a hybrid prose-ish work titled The Confessions of Electra Rousseau (it will likely contain some poetry, memoir, fiction, speculative memoir, auto-theory, and true crime tropes and general weirdness) and a work of prose poetry that will continue my ongoing re-writing/investigation into the poem The Song of Hiawatha with a focus on the effects of colonization on mental health, the representation of Indigenous women in literature, and the resurgence of Indigenous voices, knowledges, and place names that the original poem appropriated or erased.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Kim Fahner, Margo LaPierre, and Jérôme Melançon, Extroverted review: the book of smaller, by rob mclennan

the book of smaller, rob mclennan
University of Calgary Press, 2022






Jérôme Melançon: Hi Kim, hi Margo. So to get this started: I’m not sure what goes on with the gestures accomplished in these poems. I wouldn’t call them imaginative, but I wouldn’t call them descriptive, either. Maybe they’re a form of denotation? Trying to name things? What would you call that – what is rob doing?

Kim Fahner: I think he’s documenting each day. While it’s not as narrative as Bronwen Wallace’s work, the book of smaller has that sort of sensibility about it. Wallace used to talk about how we should look for the extraordinary in the ordinary rhythms of life. These short sentences that rob writes remind me, as a reader—and as a person—to take more careful note of what’s happening around me. When I read this book of poems, I feel like I’m a voyeur, seeing things that are private and that, as a result, feel more endearing and weighted with meaning than they might otherwise. Does that make sense?

Margo LaPierre: Absolutely, Kim! There’s a sense of daily taking-stock that reminds me a bit of a scientific or anthropological method, but of the self, of one’s family and communities. “Endearing” is such a great word because I feel this is what rob’s writing does—it’s precise but not calculated. It’s ground-level but expansive. What exists between imaginative and descriptive? It’s like he’s putting pins in experience, creating a map of life, like a shorthand. An emotional, experiential shorthand. And yet there’s a repetition of blood to the point that it’s like experience—time—is bleeding out, and the writing is a way to suture it. In rob’s poem “Failed senryu,” (63) he writes: “I don’t mean to get all parallel. How the day never varies. Like a hemorrhage.” There is a practice in his work that seems to want to show snapshot over artifice. If this collection were a photograph, it would be a candid one.

K: Oh, Margo—I love the ‘putting pins in experience, creating a map of life’ analogy you’ve made. How often do we forget to note the tiniest experiences in a day, but rob does that in all of the poems in the book of smaller.

J: Yes, it’s a way of seeing—voyeurism, taking snapshots—without interrupting the course of the day. There’s something dynamic, so incomplete. There’s no delimitation between the writing, the written, the world, the words received and passed on. He lets us into his perspective, not through his eyes, but from his position.

There’s also the question of why rob is doing that. He mentions “What needs not be written” (39), which brings focus to what is written, and suggests that there are other things, experiences, relations, that don’t need to be written, that need not to be written. He seems to give equal importance to both, and to see a difference in quality between the two kinds of experience. And it’s a choice, it seems arbitrary: “The sentence is always unfounded.”

Same: “We never look like the writing.” (3) That last one goes back to the question I asked earlier; I don’t think he’s trying to describe, but there’s definitely something he’s trying to grasp, to hold onto. And just to finish this thought, I think the same idea is present when he writes: “My pen runs low. What I have misjudged.” (49) Is it that something didn’t need to be written? Or just that he didn’t use his time well?

K: I think…maybe…it’s about trying to make meaning of life through observing it really carefully. I want to try to do this with my writing, just to try to write a poem in his style, just to see how my mind works if I give it a voice without censoring it. I feel that I ‘clean up’ my writing before it even exits my mind, and that’s before I begin to revise pieces after they’re down on paper. I love how he’ll move from thing to thing, from experience to experience. In “Incremental,” he writes: “I don’t know how to write. Other templates emerge. My faith/is insurance. A pat on the shoulder. Again, our skunk winters.” (30) It’s like leapfrogging through a person’s mind, in poetics.

M: Oh goodness, I feel you, Kim—I would like my writing to be more topographical in the way his is. I would like my whole existence to be that way, and yet I find myself nervous or reticent to be as open as rob is both in his poetry and in his way as a friend and poet in the community. It’s true that in this book rob questions the ability of writing to cover what needs to be covered. I know that rob’s work as a writer extends far beyond the page. That for many years he has bolstered community and created space for writers. His work ethic is unparalleled! I could never agree to a statement that says rob didn’t use his time well. He strikes me as stunningly on the ball, productive, and efficient. And, in the same breath, authentic.

J: That makes me think of the lines, “A sentence is what annihilates me.” And “A cell that holds the body, whole.” (“Title poem,” 67) There’s that ceaseless movement that you both describe so well, on the page and in life, that could really define him—but from the inside, he seems to experience an opposite fear, a concern with disappearance or immobility. Or maybe he craves it, I don’t know, this might not be a negative eventuality at all.

There are some great metaphysical images here, depictions of being, beings, ways of being… What are your favourites? I’ll share mine after.

K: A lot of this book made me sit up and think about how time works, and how it passes, and how we age without thinking we are aging. I’m not sure what I want to ask about this, and I need to think a bit more about it, but I also know I need to write this down or I’ll forget!

M: Oh boy, 100%, Kim. In relation to aging, what do you think may be hidden in the line “Words as long as facts” in “My 1975” (31)?

K: I think I’m drawn to how rob positions himself in terms of his age, and the aging process. He and I are very close in age, so I’m drawn in to the way he notices things that are both timeless and constant, almost, and then left thinking about how it feels to be ‘between’ two ends of time in a life. His tiny daughters show one end of the spectrum, but his poems about his father’s decline show the other. He’s in the middle somewhere, trying to find meaning in the syntax of sentences and often realizing that it’s rooted in the tiniest moments of caring for his girls or checking in on his dad. I love “Daylight savings” for that sense of location and setting. He writes: “But first, coffee. What have we saved? Preschooler up with the dawn. Morning routine, chaos: oatmeal, newspaper, diapers. So much yelling. A mile or more in her red shoes, princess apparel. Such empathy. Exaggerated twirls.” (54) Reading this poem makes me feel as if I am sitting in that same kitchen, watching a morning full of chaos and love unfurl itself over a mug of coffee. The tenderness of this poem gets at my heart, especially when rob ends it with “We have no need for icons.” Gah! My heart! No, of course not. There is no need for icons because he is describing this beautiful scene of familial chaos and love. It’s raw and gorgeous and tender. In his description, he knows the value of the moment, one that will pass…as all of time does.

M: I love his Forty-seventh birthday series, and from the first one, there’s the image of a petrified forest for language. I remember visiting the petrified forest in Arizona as a child, and it’s a bunch of trees turned into rocks! I’m sure that once I had one of those tree-rocks for my pocket. But he applies this to grammar, dead metaphors. These smooth-brained rocks we carry. In another serial poem, “It’s still winter,” electrical outlets are held in the mouth. And occasions equal restlessness. Something occurring only once drawing our attention. What is not daily, not holy, maybe. I love the dailiness in rob’s poems. 

J: That image of metamorphosis you bring up Margo, I love it. Reaching for something that’s outside of the possibilities of daily life, within daily life. rob writes in “Wing, an ideal place”: “A shadow won’t translate; you have to speak its language.” (26) So much in here, and definitely in my own writing as well, emerges from this concern to catch what objects, times, situations, events are telling us. Conveying that, passing it on, requires such care, like bringing something into the world, from a different world, a different dimension, in all its fragility, because it doesn’t entirely belong here. And yet, it’s here.

K: Jerome, that notion—of passing it on—is embedded in the poems about his mother and father, but also in rob’s fascination on where things begin in a person’s life. We know factual things—like our place and time of birth—but memory starts a bit later, so he explores and spelunks around that question, as well. What do we first remember? How are we tied to those who came before us? Those who come afterwards? The idea of passing things on (or down) is reflected, too, as Margo says, in the birth and birthday poems.

I love “Birth story” for its simplicity: “I was born. At some far away point. Two blocks from this tavern. I’m not joking” (15). It’s a place to situate oneself, the moment you were born—when you began and how you begin to move forward from birth to adulthood, and then, to caring for aging parents and being part of the Sandwich Generation. It’s echoed again, in “I live somewhere imaginary” (47), when rob writes “The poem begins: when you are born” and “I repeat myself.” As humans, as poets, we ‘worry through’ some of the same big questions and ideas through our bodies of work. That notion is present in the book of smaller, too.

One of the key themes, I think, is about how writing ‘works’ and how much we think about how it works, as the poets and writers we are. The prologue of the collection, by Anna Gurton-Wachter, speaks to how writing is about suffering losses. Sometimes, it feels to me, life is also about that, so it’s an archetypal human ‘thing.’ But, then I also think that—as writers and deep thinkers—we are maybe more aware of how tiny things are both gifts and losses. How do you think loss works into this collection of rob’s? I’m noticing his poems for his parents, and for his children as they grow up…

J: My children being a few years older than his younger two, I was brought back to those moments, holding them after they had fallen asleep in the oddest places or sitting down in the middle of an intense session of pretend-play, when I noticed small changes that made me feel that something was slipping away. He weaves that feeling into a few poems—a shared joy, but a consciousness of time as carrying away what’s already in the process of escaping. His eldest daughter is also present, deepening that gap in time, that slipperiness: “My daughter is in New York City, celebrating. The baby is asleep. The poem is the distance between early morning rustlings. The toddler, cat. This is the last day of the year.” (2) But there’s also something in there that’s not entirely lost, and the same goes for his mother. In “Sentences my mother used” (37) the brevity and ordinariness of the sentences seem to carry his mother into his own, or anyone else’s, daily utterances, making her present still.

M: The poems in the book of smaller strike me as those of a self-archivist. Or not quite the self but the circle around self: family, community. I feel like I hear the word “presence” as a verb a lot these days, of presencing, being present, making present. And I wonder if rob is “pasting” by treating the familial/familar minutiae as historical and worthy of preservation even in the moment of its unfolding. Preservation in a way that anticipates loss, so that loss must be coded into a thing in order to enter it into this archival document. His poem “Letter” (65) is only two sentences: “As sacred as any artifact. The disembodied hand.” I am not sure whether “letter” is meant as the typographical character or the epistolary document, maybe both (probably both), but I wonder if these treats writing as an extension of ourselves that we then have to chop off in order to pass it around to others to read. 

K: I’m fond of the tiny, domestic details that he weaves into his poems. I love the mentions of slow cookers and children waking from naps. Were there images or lines that resonated with you, that made you rethink your life inside your house, even? 

J: The book resonated with my pandemic life, even though it was written before the pandemic. This tying together of moments, the multiplication of my gestures inside the home that were simply multiplied once we needed to isolate (and in the case of my family, given a compromised immune system in the house, this is for the foreseeable future). Living by train tracks (repeatedly, across different cities), I’m drawn to “Thunder rolls, or a heavy truck.” (49) That uncertainty about what the world brings to us, whether there’s danger, whether I need to stop what I’m doing on carry on, as I carry on. And then there are those aspects of daily, home life that disappear. “Sustenance” (72) is the clearest series of images that brought me back to gestures we repeated every day when the children were young, completely unrelated thoughts interspaced between them: “Rose, a wish to water seedlings. Sprout. All we’ve managed to garden. Where’s her schoolbag? Put your socks on. Chew. Beyond the frame: Christine’s work-prep.”

M: Daily gestures, certainly. I don’t have children and am lucky enough to have both parents and both in-laws in my life, so the greatest concrete gains and losses of the book are ones I haven’t experienced. And yet I find the poems to be ground-level and relatable for me, especially in the inquiry of writing as a practice. What are the stakes of writing? The goal? Those sorts of questions. An observation like “We never look like the writing (3)” seems to propose that writing might be a turning inside out of self. Oh, I am this person with this colour of hair and this particular smile and this wool scarf and these projects and these chores? Well ha, I am also the red slime of viscera, the half-digested food, the electric glint of chattering neurons. I am also these memories and questions.  

A few lines that draw my attention for their attention to leaky abundance:

“Thirty pages of liquid (26).”

“The unbound capacity of sentences (33).”

“The talk of ‘one more thing.’ Adaptability. Waterlogged (38).”

“Word count. A spread (39).”

“How the day never varies. Like a hemorrhage (63).”

“How these fragments link together (73).”

“How high is the water? Runoff, drift (74).”

“The Chaudiere rages. It holds down the house. May have washed away. How high’s the water, mama (75)?”

“Rituals are not my thing. A multilingual, bleed and shift (81).”

“The sun flows in every direction. Do not worry about your own authority over anything (87).”

“The surface overtakes the borders (92).”

Even the final line of the collection: “This June rain, relentless. I’ve nothing to add (108).”

It’s all an overflow. I picture rob like one of those old animated cartoons in a leaky house of experience, putting buckets everywhere that simply can’t contain. I remember Mickey Mouse in the movie Fantasia, The Sorceror’s Apprentice number, gleefully playing with magic that results in an alarming, rushing flood that displaces all sorts of domestic items. There’s a desire to contain and a recognition of how impossible a task that is. 

To tie this back to Jerome’s question, I think in this collection, being is a bursting that can’t be dammed. But we can still try to document, imperfectly. What do you guys think? Does life overflow or exceed writing? Are we talking about writing as a container for lived experience?

K: I hope that life can’t exceed writing because then I’d worry that some of it wouldn’t be captured in literature, and I love how literature—all genres, but poetry in particular—serves to sort of remind us of our humanness. I guess I hope, too, that writing can serve life, somehow…that writing can record and document and then later serve as a form of recollection and witnessing (for others who may come later and possibly read the work) so that fragments of time and life experience are preserved for later. I like that idea of writing as a container for lived experience, but I don’t want the lived experiences to ever feel like dead butterflies pinned in a display box in the ROM or something. I want writing to keep the essence of life experience alive, in a vibrant way. I think that’s why rob’s work in this collection is all about “Compassionate engagement” (55) and how a letter, something he says that only poets write anymore, is “sacred as any artifact.” (65) 

J: If we're taking the time to write, even this right now, and if rob's making time to write in between everything else he's doing in 2017, sometimes a simple marvelous line that holds everything within itself, for a moment, then writing has to exceed life, augment it, heighten it, be its own experience, its own moment. Like when writing a letter, making time for someone else. I just got a letter from rob, along with a box of my chapbooks, and I need to reply, but already there's this gratefulness for having written—and I do mean to be ambiguous about the subject of this sentence. I get that sense of gratefulness for the moments that are carried into writing, taken care of, held, and for the moment of writing, in every page of this book. The moments don't flee in the book or between not writing and writing, they flow into one another, and rob develops an awareness of continuity. Not always, of course, and he knows it: “I don’t mean to get all parallel.” (63)

I feel a deliberate writing, a polishing, every sentence smooth, a pebbling. We feel a desire to carry & let oneself be carried. I think you're right, Kim. These short sentences without subjects or verbs or predicate—they're the work of the invisible. They have—rob gives them no beginning nor end, no temporal direction; they're a delivery of fullness.

M: An awareness of continuity is such a great word for what he’s doing, Jerome. And Kim, yes to compassionate engagement! He certainly lives this. One thing I appreciate is how he doesn’t disengage when encountering resistance. A few years ago he’d prompted me to send him some poetry a few times and I had to admit to him that I was just simply too depressed to send any work out, there was nothing I’d feel good about seeing published. Several months later, he checked back in, and whether it was that time or another later on, eventually I was in a place where I was able to submit. I think a lot of writers are in tough spots right now and rob’s attitude is one to keep in mind, whether we’re prompting or querying or submitting or simply reaching out as a friend—to keep trying in cycles despite resistance.

J: That makes me think of a line I love, that I keep going back to: “Wings: if we’ve each but one, should we hold hands.” (26) Not a complete interrogation, and not a statement. More than a hypothesis, less than a norm. A suggestion perhaps, or the expression of an attitude. He doesn't speak to the reader often, and he doesn't address the people in his life in the second person, so it might be a generic we—or a way to describe a poetics, an ethics, a politics, simply his way of relating.






Kim Fahner first met rob in Ottawa, while she was a grad student at Carleton, back in 1994-95. There, in the window of an independent bookstore on Bank Street, was a long-haired poet who looked a bit like Jesus writing poems on an Underwood typewriter. She bought a chapbook of poems and liked it a whole lot. Such a long time later, and she’s glad to be writing reviews for periodicities with cool poets like Jerome and Margo. She especially likes how rob gathers poets together from across the country in his poetic undertakings, and she loves getting occasional notes from him in the mail!

Margo LaPierre met rob through the Ottawa poetry scene while she was still just a visitor to the city from Toronto, in thrall of how cool, kind, and welcoming all these Ottawa poets were. Margo and rob *almost* share a birthday and very occasionally run into each other on Bank St., where rob can sometimes be found running writerly errands with happy little Aoife as his sidekick. 

Jérôme Melançon met rob mclennan on Twitter and sent him a chapbook. The response, and invitation to send work for periodicities (well, not a personal invitation) all came on the cusp of the pandemic. Then he's met so many great people through above/ground, periodicities, and social media conversations that he can't untangle his life and his writing from all these threads rob lets all these great writers leave lying around.

All three publish often enough on periodicities and kind of like it here.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

2022 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist interviews: Tolu Oloruntoba

The Junta of Happenstance, Tolu Oloruntoba
Anstruther Books/Palimpsest Press, 2021
2022 Griffin Poetry Prize • Canadian Shortlist

interviewed by rob mclennan

The 2022 Griffin Poetry Prize will be announced on June 15, 2022.

Tolu Oloruntoba [photo credit: Franctal Studios] is the author of the Anstruther Press chapbook Manubrium. His poetry has appeared in Pleiades, Columbia Journal, Entropy, and other publications, and his short fiction has appeared in translation in Dansk PEN Magazine. He founded Klorofyl, a magazine of literary and graphic art, and practiced medicine before his current work managing projects for health authorities in British Columbia. After a somewhat itinerant life in Nigeria and the United States, he emigrated to the Greater Vancouver Area, where he lives with his family.

There aren’t too many poets who already have a new title published by the time they’ve a book shortlisted for such a prestigious prize. Given your second collection, Each One a Furnace (McClelland and Stewart, 2022), appeared this past spring, what do you see as the relationship between the two collections?

Thanks, rob. Because I had been emerging for some time (about 20 years) before my first collection was published, I had accumulated some manuscripts’ worth of poems. So, although the poems in my first two collections were mostly written between 2017 and 2021, the momentum of my former work carried me through. The two books are part of a continuum in my mind, a trilogy centering existential inquiry. My vehicles / motifs in this inquiry continue to be mental health / illness; dysfunctional family dynamics / the legacy of trauma; migrancy / instability; and urban ennui / disillusionment with a broken society within a setting of climate collapse. I stopped trying to veer away from my key meditations, and in each of the successive books, I have been able to refine the questions I am asking. The scope of my inquiry has remained the same, however.

What, for you, is the process of putting together a manuscript? At what point in the process of writing the poems that became The Junta of Happenstance, or even Each One a Furnace, did the shapes of the larger manuscripts begin to reveal themselves?

For most months of the year, I do not write many poems. I simply read, work, and wait. I realize now that this is my subconscious incubating and associating a lot of material. However, for two to three glorious months a year, my built-up psychic energy releases itself in dozens of poems. They invariably carry the heft of my recent meditations. The last manuscript I completed, in 2021, was apocalyptic. Which makes sense when you consider covid and the recent state of the world. I begin to sense the shape of a manuscript when the initial sheaf of poems, usually about ten or so, begin to coalesce around a theme that reveals the slope of my subconscious. For The Junta of Happenstance, the poems I began with arrived while I still lived in Pittsburgh, PA, about a year before I began a cross-continental drive to Surrey in BC. I had also recently begun to seek help for my mental health. That reckoning with my personal fragility and the precarity of my existence on this continent, animated the early poems. Some of the poems, like the ones in the final section of the book, were incantatory poems that helped me survive the worst of my dysphoria and panic. A poem like “Settlers’ Effects,” for instance was written in fragments while we left our former home behind, heavy with disillusionment. Sometimes, while driving, I would ask my partner to text a certain phrase to me before I forgot. Or I’d hold it in my head till we got to a rest stop. A poem like “Emerging” was written when we arrived in BC and began to look for a place to rent. The bee sting I referred to literally happened as we left one of the places we had been viewing. So, the book is a non-chronological account of my journey from Pittsburgh to Surrey, all the while searching for mental health and confronting the bloody realities and histories of the three countries I have lived in. On the other hand, I began to write Each One a Furnace when, nine months into my time in this country I lost my job. In the distressing six months that followed, I was able to channel a lot of my confusion, rage, fear, and sense of instability into the manuscript. In this way, if each of my books represents an era of my life, my eventual bibliography may be viewed as a somewhat autobiographical account of my life. I maintain complete deniability of course and will invoke my application of poetic license in any required parts of it, as all poets must. J

Your work as a physician connects you to a wide swath of poet-doctors over the years, from John Keats and William Carlos Williams to Shane Neilson and Conor Mc Donnell. Is this something you are conscious of as you are writing? How do you see these two elements of your life connecting, or even impacting each other?

I consider myself a poet that happens to have medical training and experience. It is not a central part of my identity. I simply use the resources my medical career left me with. Write what you know, eh? Or at least use it to frame what you don’t know and need to know. I view my project management and health technology work in corporate North America in the same way. It all goes in the sausage (if you pardon the gross analogy). I will admit, though, that my time in medical towers has improved my facility with Latinate and Greek etymologies, which then help me wend my way around the English language. Because I was a sensitive young person, my time in medicine also affected me deeply, and perhaps increased my capacity to imbibe and integrate information. I was a trivia club captain in my final year of medical school, for instance, which was a natural outlet for all the information I used to stash (and continue to collect). The impressions of medical practice, of course, sometimes find expression in poetry, but never because I am deliberately invoking them.

Given your self-described twenty years of “emerging,” what shifts, if at all, are you noticing now that you’ve begun to publish books? Has your relationship to writing changed through the process?

Because I have achieved the literary goal I held so close for two decades (getting ONE book published), I find myself in need of a new mission. This feeling of deflation and alienation after one's debut has been well described by several authors, most recently (for me) Alexander Chee in this short Twitter thread.

So what does a dog that has been chasing a car do when it finally catches it? I guess we're about to find out. The primary thought I have now, though, is that I have written everything I want to say in poetry for now (between the two books and three unpublished manuscripts). Time to try some other genres. Perhaps that long-abandoned novel of mine, or a screenplay. This might just be the massive burnout speaking, but it is how I feel at this time.

I’m curious about your relationship to form. Have you a potential shape in mind when you begin to compose? Are there particular structures in the back of your head, or is the process more intuitive, formed through the process of composition?

Occasionally, I give myself a literary challenge: to create a cento, or write a sestina or villanelle. More often, though, the form comes to me when I am writing the poem. I am in the “write first, edit later” camp, so I try to intuit where the poem needs to breathe, after (most of) it is written. I put my stanza breaks there. If the poem is more breathless, my lines will tend to be longer and stanza breaks fewer, or absent. As I arrange the poem around breath and format the poem for the page, I sometimes follow the interesting possibilities that occur to me based on what I know about form.

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