Thursday, August 25, 2016

Ploughshares : an interview with Diane Schoemperlen

Until the end of 2016, I'm a monthly blogger over at the Ploughshares blog! And my second post is now up: an interview with award-winning Kingston writer Diane Schoemperlen, author of the new memoir This Is Not My Life: A Memoir of Love, Prison, and Other Complications (HarperCollins, 2016). You can see the interview here. My first post, an interview with award-winning Toronto poet Soraya Peerbaye, author of Tell: poems for a girlhood (Pedlar Press, 2015), is still online here.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

above/ground press 23rd anniversary parties in Toronto and Ottawa!

above/ground press turned twenty-three years old this summer, which means I'm hosting not one, but two anniversary parties!

Toronto ON: 7:30pm, Thursday, August 25: a series of readings by Braydon Beaulieu (Toronto), Ashley-Elizabeth Best (Kingston), Sean Braune (Toronto), Stephen Brockwell (Ottawa), Sharon Harris (Toronto), Aaron Tucker (Toronto) and Hugh Thomas (Montreal) at The Steady Cafe and Bar. For more information, click here. 

Ottawa ON: 7:30pm, Saturday, September 10: a series of readings by Stephanie Bolster (Montreal), Sean Braune (Toronto), Braydon Beaulieu (Toronto) and Pearl Pirie (Ottawa) at Black Squirrel. For more information, click here.

all lovingly hosted by above/ground press editor/publisher rob mclennan
$5 at the door; includes a copy of a recent above/ground press title

and don't forget the above/ground press summer sale, still going on! or the Touch the Donkey back issue sale! hooray publishing!




Tuesday, August 23, 2016

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Eléna Rivera

Eléna Rivera was born in Mexico City, and spent her formative years in Paris. She has also lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, Montréal and Providence, Rhode Island. She now resides in New York City.

Her book of poems, Scaffolding, is forthcoming from Princeton University Press. Other books include: Atmosphered (Oystercatcher Press, 2014), Overture (Metambesen, 2014), On the Nature of Position and Tone (Field Press, 2012) and The Perforated Map (Shearsman Books, 2011). She won the 2010 Robert Fagles prize for her translation of Bernard Noël’s The Rest of the Voyage (Graywolf Press, 2011).

How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
That depends on what you mean by “first book:” The first book I made as a child; my first letterpress book; the first handmade book I made for a friend; my first chapbook, my first perfect-bound book? Each was a first, each marked my development as a writer in its own different way. I loved books—the paper, the look of them, the smell of them, the mystery inside them. Writing for me is the attempt to voice what is present, which I still don't “know;” it’s a way out of erasure, and each book gave me more confidence, which then gave me the courage I needed to go further. I still feel as though I’m just skimming the surface, bumping into things, being sloppy, which is why I find myself having to make order, to find the ways out of entropy and inertia.

How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I actually came to fiction, and writing stories, at the same time writing poems. My parents led the bohemian life of expatriates in Paris in the 60s and 70s. My father knew many poets and often played recording of poets reading. I'd paint, write poems, put on plays, write stories. In the French system too children are asked to memorize poems regularly.  I’d memorize long poems like “La Chanson de Roland,” enthralled by the sounds.

How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
It really depends on the project, the poem; it’s different for each and every poem; it's always an experiment, a new adventure, a push past the boundaries of the habitual. I want the poem to be alive, so whatever it takes, as long as I have the courage not to give up on it too soon and to let it go when it needs to be free of me. I think of a friend who recounted an Arabic saying: An apple does not fall toward the tree.

Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Again it depends on the project. For a while I was very interested in the long poem and the serial poem. When I made letterpress books, I wrote poems to fit the conception I had of book as a whole (the font, typeface, size, paper). Then a number of years ago I started working on discreet poems to see what that kind of practice that would yield, first writing one poem a day for thirty-one days, then a book of sonnets where my plan was to write a sonnet a day for a year. Now I see this wasn't so different from the long poems, just that my intention changed. Lately I've been working with more open forms, beginning with fragments, the length ends up depending on the kind of time I have. My concern really has to do with getting more freedom, whether that's experientially and/or experimentally—each poem traces different considerations.

Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I like re-entering a poem and hearing its sounds, hearing the unexpected that the oral rendering gives rise to—the poems often surprise me; they are more truthful than I am. I like recordings, another kind of notation. I can't tell you how many times I've listened to Oppen's Of Being Numerous.

Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I’m concerned with the question of freedom. How to live free? How can I live life to the fullest (most present)? What do I have to offer? How do I find my place among others? What does it mean to write in this historical moment? What about the question of suffering? What about the gap for me between the French language and the English? What about place, landscape, nature? How can I be more attentive? Do I have the courage to meet the challenges of life? Will I be true to myself? Will I be able to say what really needs to be said? We moved to America when I was thirteen, and that's when I experienced the shock of the violence in this country, the racial hatred that was all around me. I didn't understand it, but it affected me, and it enters my poems.

What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
That’s a big question. I don’t think I can answer a question like that in this context. I’d have to separate it from the question of what is the role of the citizen (if one can separate it), and writing is what teaches me how to be a citizen. Is it any different from being a decent human being, a person attentive to, and sensitive to the world around them? To other people around them? These are qualities that many people have, regardless of whether they are artists or not. I don’t think there’s a “should be” role for any writer. There’s always room for difference. My “role” if I have any, is to remain sensitive, conscious, and open—not to lie (to myself or someone else)—so that I can be receptive to/in the writing.

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

I’m very lucky to have a few good friends who are excellent readers. I like some input, it helps me gauge whether what I’ve done comes across to a reader, but only when I feel I’ve gone as far as I can go.

What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Ruth Rendell, the British author, wrote: "Don't apologize, don't explain." A difficult practice that can render a lot of freedom.

How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to translation)? What do you see as the appeal?
Translation makes sense to me as I grew up speaking French and Spanish, but I don’t consider myself a “translator,” more of an excavator. I try to meet one language with the other through the process of understanding that other text—what the other poet is doing. Translating slows one down, it teaches one to take more time with writing because with translation one has to take a lot of time just to get to that life in the other text. I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility toward the text that I'm working with. I seek in the words of the text a meeting across the divide.

What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I find a routine helps tremendously, but then life enters and routines are shifted and changed. As in writing poems, I like the edge between routine, and the complete unknown, the unexpected and unfamiliar.

When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Edmond Jabès called the time in-between books “The Book of Torment.” I think it’s important to let things work themselves to the surface (even in the “torment”). You never know how or what will be generated by that period. I’m stimulated mostly by my reading or going to art exhibitions, by being attentive to what is going on around me (slowing down), and by figuring out on paper what I think and what my mind’s position is in regards to the world around me.

What fragrance reminds you of home?
The sweet smell of the old yellow Metro tickets strewn in the Paris Metro.

David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Everything. Nature, dreams, music, visual art, the noises of the city. I’ve had periods where film was extremely important to me. Jazz, soul, blues and world music. Opera. Flamenco. My grandfather, a botanist, inspired me. My uncle the painter Gil Cuatrecasas inspired me. My parent’s friend in Paris were all artists, musicians, so I was surrounded by music, visual art, literature, theater, since I was an infant. And various religions too, Catholicism, Zen Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, those practices, as well as myths and philosophies of various traditions.

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

George Oppen, Emily Dickinson, Marina Tsvetaeva, Leslie Scalapino, Virginia Woolf, Rilke, Paul Celan, Lorine Niedecker, Marguerite Duras, Wallace Stevens, Sophocles, Alice Oswald, Shakespeare, and many many others; also my friends and mentors, and others too, too numerous to mention.

What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
More collaboration.

If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I was always writing or making art (painting, theater), even when I didn’t think of myself as a "writer.” I’ve had so many jobs, but writing helped me to live. Otherwise I’d love to be a visual artist, musician, or a playwright.

What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I just had to. I never had a choice (or felt as if I has one).

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

I quite liked Patti Smith’s Just Kids and The Once and Future King by T.H. White, and recently I saw the films, Carol and 45 Years, both which I really enjoyed and found moving and striking in different ways. Now I'm reading James Baldwin.

What are you currently working on?
A translation of a novella by Bernard Noël.                     
                           
May 18, 2016

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Monday, August 22, 2016

Queen Mob's Teahouse : Mary Kasimor interviews George Farrah

As my tenure as interviews editor at Queen Mob's Teahouse continues, the thirteenth interview is now online: Mary Kasimor interviews George Farrah [photo by Ted Hall]. Other interviews from my tenure include: an interview with poet, curator and art critic Gil McElroy, conducted by Ottawa poet Roland Prevost, an interview with Toronto poet Jacqueline Valencia, conducted by Lyndsay Kirkham, an interview with Drew Shannon and Nathan Page, also conducted by Lyndsay Kirkham, an interview with Ann Tweedy conducted by Mary Kasimor, an interview with Katherine Osborne, conducted by Niina Pollari, an interview with Catch Business, conducted by Jon-Michael Frank, a conversation between Vanesa Pacheco and T.A. Noonan, "On Translation and Erasure," existing as an extension of Jessica Smith's The Women in Visual Poetry: The Bechdel Test, produced via Essay PressFive questions for Sara Uribe and John Pluecker about Antígona González by David Buuck (translated by John Pluecker) and "overflow: poetry, performance, technology, ancestry": kaie kellough in correspondence with Eric Schmaltz.

Further interviews I've conducted myself over at Queen Mob's Teahouse include: Stephanie Bolster on Three Bloody Words, Claire Farley on Canthius, Dale Smith on Slow Poetry in America, Allison Green, Meredith Quartermain, Andy Weaver, N.W Lea and Rachel Loden.

If you are interested in sending a pitch for an interview my way, check out my "about submissions" write-up at Queen Mob's; you can contact me via rob_mclennan (at) hotmail.com

Sunday, August 21, 2016

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Vivek Shraya

Vivek Shraya is a Toronto-based artist whose body of work includes several albums, films, and books. Her first novel, She of the Mountains, was named one of The Globe and Mail’s Best Books of 2014. Her debut collection of poetry, even this page is white, was released this spring. Vivek has read and performed inter­nationally at shows, festivals and post-secondary institutions, sharing the stage with Tegan & Sara and Dragonette, and has appeared at NXNE, Word on the Street, and Yale University. She is one half of the music duo Too Attached.

Vivek is a 2016 Pride Toronto Grand Marshal, a three-time Lambda Literary Award finalist, a 2015 Toronto Arts Foundation Emerging Artist Award finalist, and a 2015 recipient of the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s Dayne Ogilvie Prize Honour of Distinction. Vivek’s first children’s picture book, The Boy & the Bindi, will be published by Arsenal Pulp Press in 2016.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Before I had written my first book, I saw myself strictly as a musician. But the book opened me up as an artist, excited to explore and experiment with various mediums. 

There is always an innocence that accompanies a first project. With God Loves Hair, I had zero expectations. With every book I have written since, there is a greater pressure (even if just self-imposed) to write something better, richer. My newest book, even this page is white, is also poetry, unlike God Loves Hair which is a collection of short stories. 

2 - How did you come to visual art first, as opposed to, say, fiction, poetry, music or film (all of which you have done since)?
I actually came to music first! I think I was drawn to the beauty and emotion in melody and first started singing in a religious organization I participated in and later at school assemblies. 

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Out of all the mediums I work in, I find writing to be the hardest. It is a slow process and requires many drafts and a lot of feedback from other writers.

4 - Where does a poem or work of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I always start with an idea. The idea dictates the format. Four years ago, I knew I wanted to make art that challenged biphobia. Writing a love story, in the format of a novel, struck me as the best means to do so. 

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
While I tend not to share rough or new work until it's "published," I do enjoy readings as a means to showcase a different side of the work and to make a one-on-one connection with other humans. Social media is a great way to spread the word about your newest project, but there is nothing like standing in front of someone and sharing the work live.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
A central question for me in my art, even if subconscious, is how can I complicate dominant narratives? 

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
"A writer's job is to make you aware of lives other than your own."

This was in my twitter feed today. I am not sure who said it, but it resonated with me.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Both. I can't make the best art possible without feedback from others, including editorial feedback, but feedback can be hard to digest.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
You have to make the bad art to get to making the good art.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (visual art to poetry to fiction to film to music)? What do you see as the appeal?
I have a short attention span, so working between mediums keeps me excited. Also, I am able to bring whatever I have learned from one project in whatever medium into the next project in a different medium. 

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I don't have a writing routine. As someone who navigates a 9-5 job, I am forced to write in the pockets of time that I carve out.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
When I get stalled, I either take a break from the writing or write on paper, instead of the screen, as I find it awakens a different part of my creativity.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Sandalwood incense.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I am heavily influenced by visual art and political discourse.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I am most inspired by writers who are taking risks in their work, writers writing the unimaginable. 

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I always wish I was a dancer.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
See above! 

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I came to writing because I was frustrated with my inability to create songs that my label at the time was happy with. At the core, I have always been a communicator, and I think this is why I came to writing.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The last great book I read was Big Kids by Michael DeForge. I love magic so I loved Now You See Me 2.

20 - What are you currently working on?
I have a new child picture book out this fall. It is called The Boy & the Bindi (Arsenal Pulp Press).

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Solmaz Sharif, Look




I place a photograph of my uncle on my computer desktop, which means I learn to ignore it. He stands by a tank, helmet tilting to his right, bootlaces tightened as if stitching together a wound. Alive the hand brings up a cigarette we won’t see him taste. Last night I smoked one on the steps outside my barn apartment. A promise I broke myself. He promised himself he wouldn’t and did. I smell my fingers and I am smelling his. Hands of smoke and gunpowder. Hands that promised they wouldn’t, but did. (“Personal Effects”)

The poems in Solmaz Sharif’s remarkable first poetry collection, Look (Minneapolis MN: Graywolf Press, 2016) explore the difficulties of boundaries upon the citizen, writing out war in the Middle East, the war on terror and other devastations upon, by and through language, countries and people. An American of Iranian descent, she writes of lovers while utilizing the language of the American military and military operations, and a clash between cultures, actions and echoes, such as in the poem “Force Visibility,” that includes: “What is fascism? / A student asked me // and can you believe / I couldn’t remember / the definition? // The sonnet, / I said. / I could’ve said this: // our sanctioned twoness.” As the press release informs, Look “…asks us to see the ongoing costs of war as the unbearable losses of human lives and also the insidious abuses against our everyday speech. In this virtuosic array of poems, lists, shards, and sequences, Sharif assembles her family’s and her own fragmented narratives in the aftermath of warfare.” The poems collected here are incredibly powerful, and run with an easy cadence and patter that one might get lost in, and a sensitivity to love, loss and lament that is utterly human, generously kind and utterly heartbreaking. Sharif relentlessly critiques warfare and those who engage in it, and provides a human face to what is so often dismissed or overlooked as far as actual human cost, especially from the perspective of what the West insists on reducing and demonizing as “the other.” In an essay over at The Kenyon Review, she spoke of her work, writing:


When I am asked to describe my poetry on airplane flights, at dinner parties, I describe it first as “political.” Then, “documentary.” And these two things seem to, for some, preclude aesthetic rigor. But I am with Forough Farokhzad, who said, loosely translated, in an interview in the middle of the twentieth century: “what do I care of if no poem in Farsi has yet used the word ‘explode.’ Every direction I look, I see things are exploding.”


Friday, August 19, 2016

Zach Savich, The Orchard Green and Every Color




You don’t need to paint faces in the trees

There are faces already


Today is an open letter

Read it to me


To everything, lemon added

This appetite doesn’t signal deficiency


The final step of transplanting is distress the trunk (“My Summer Hospital”)

Philadelphia poet and editor Zach Savich’s fifth full-length poetry collection is The Orchard Green and Every Color (Oakland CA: Omnidawn, 2016), a collection of stitched-together sentences organized into two distinct and discrete sequences. The opening poem-sequence “My Summer Hospital” is followed by the lengthy “A Different Year,” a section made up of poems with a variety of lengths, all of which are seemingly constructed in the same collage manner. This collection showcases Savich very much as a poet of sentences, akin to Lisa Robertson or Daphne Marlatt, utilizing both the quilt and the weave, as stand-alone passages begin to twist, connect and even thread as the accumulation builds. There is almost a dream quality, certainly a meditative one, to these poems, as the poem “WHICH SIDE OF THE LAKE IS LONGEST” opens with the line “We put the musicians in the prettiest room,” and later, includes “I could raise the clothesline for the long gowns.” It is as though the entire collection is constructed to set a particular tone, and a particular meditative lyric space. As he writes as part of the interview included with the press release:







As far as provocation goes: my faith is in the lyric. In the ability for lyrical tendencies—intent depiction, affective and associative reasoning, trust in song’s stammering forth, interest in uncertainty, in cosmography over cosmology—to offer what Stevens’ calls an “unofficial version,” which provides us with new ways of seeing and speaking, which we need. Basic ideas? But ones worth insisting on. Often, after reading or during visits to universities, one is asked to justify poetry’s existence, if not to apologize for it, by aligning it with aspects of culture that lyricism is better suited to resist—of media cycles, vocational import, simplified meaning, falsely polarized topicality, foregone spectacle, individual celebrity (who would trust a poet with any celebrity who didn’t immediately write poems to complicate or diminish it?), and so forth. Meanwhile, it’s safe to suspect that poetry has been a part of human life for what I’m happy to call forever. I’m glad that poetry offers an occasion to talk about meaningfulness more broadly, but the calls to justify it by culturally conventional terms—or via those who’d see poetry as a way to individual celebrity, foregone spectacle—seem to suggest an alienation from creative and humane intelligences comparable to asking what the vocational value of bread or clean water is, or why do I stay married if I can’t say what the dominant “meaning” of my relationship is, and anyway aren’t I concerned that my marriage’s audience is limited to the people involved in it, rather than being accessible to the broadest commercial group? Can’t we speak in more familiar ways in bed so everyone can get it without needing to even hear it?

Given this faith, I believe that attending to poetry—to close thinking about lineation, say—becomes a way to attend more closely to the world, to the topical, the mediated, and so forth.