Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Ploughshares : an interview with Ken Sparling

Until the end of 2016, I'm a monthly blogger over at the Ploughshares blog! And my third post is now up: an interview with Toronto novelist Ken Sparling, author of the new novel This poem is a house (Coach House Books, 2016). You can read my interview with Ken Sparling, here. My second post, 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), is still online here; and 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.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Queen Mob's Teahouse : Ben Fama interviews Precious Okoyomon

As my tenure as interviews editor at Queen Mob's Teahouse continues, the fifteenth interview is now online: an interview with Precious Okoyomon [pictured], conducted by Ben Fama. 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 Press, Five questions for Sara Uribe and John Pluecker about Antígona González by David Buuck (translated by John Pluecker),"overflow: poetry, performance, technology, ancestry": kaie kellough in correspondence with Eric Schmaltz, Mary Kasimor's interview with George Farrah and Brad Casey interviewed by Emilie Lafleur.

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, September 25, 2016

Daniel Borzutzky, The Performance of Becoming Human



We say that absence is a country

We say that in this country the mouth and the lips rent the present tense to the humans who rummage through the garbage in the bodies of the ghosts: the brothers who carry syrup and blood in their cheeks     the crazed deer     a thick, grey liquid escapes through their teeth     the love we look for what a shame to not be able to touch the soul in its hair in its cadaver in the central orifice of its iris

And the ghosts rise from the wet grass into a blood-filled night     a howling night     a night of coronary arteries exploding in a painting in a mouth in a country in a city flooded with garbage and the radiant blood shining forming a layer of paint on the squirrels’ fur     the urban skunks     the coyotes calmly walking through the streets of our city that no longer has any public employees

Stranded poets stranded insects abandoned factories (“Archive”)

Chicago poet Daniel Borzutzky’s remarkable book, The Performance of Becoming Human (Brooklyn NY: Brooklyn Arts Press, 2016), is a collection of poems-as-direct-statements, each written, seemingly, to be performed from a podium or stage, one after another. Whether the book and/or poems are themselves the performance, or Borzutzky is suggesting that being human is, in itself, the performance (suggesting that the consideration of humanity is a social/performative act and not necessarily our original state of being) might not matter, as the poems here speak to both sides of that reading. “I want to give you more room to move so I am trying to carve a space, with light, for you to walk a bit more freely,” he writes, in the opening poem, “Let Light Shine Out Of Darkness.” There is something in his use of direct statements reminiscent of, say, Canadian poets Lisa Robertson or Stuart Ross, all of whom play around with different levels of directness. The satirical poems in The Performance of Becoming Human critique the political as well as cultural/racial divides, language and the simple fact of being (and performing) human in savage, and occasionally surreal, punchlines. As he writes in the poem “The Gross and Borderless Body”:

Hello, my name is _________________

I come from a village where there is no clean water and where if your nose is shaped a certain way, or if you are too tall, or too short, you are likely to be murdered, raped, or dismembered

These tribal feuds date back to the 14th century when a short guy with a long noses slept with the wife of a tall guy with a small nose

Since then, our peoples have hated each other and many of us are in the diaspora

This is not an academic problem

There really is an element of the monologue in the poems collected in this book, pieces that not only demand performance, but manage as much performance from the bare page as they might see on stage. To say: it is possible to read this as script, and one that manages, if not a narrative line per se, a richness of content, language and critique enough to hold such a sequence together. In the poem “Memories Of My Overdevelopment,” Bortzutzky writes: “To be alive is a spiritual mission in which you must get from birth to death without killing yourself[.]” Later on, some of his sentences could easily be mistaken for Ross’ own, writing:

On the other hand, it is absolutely my fault that my life is so fucking miserable

I touch myself nightly to make sure my organs still work

And there is no one here to make my life feel any less mediocre than it already is

I want to talk, today, about my overdevelopment

But instead I pay someone to wipe the dust from my bookshelves and tables

Every body I look at looks exactly the same as my body

That is what’s it like to be a defenseless animal

You die because you have failed to install the necessary equipment in your body


Saturday, September 24, 2016

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Tobias Carroll



Tobias Carroll [photo credit: Jason Rice] is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn. His writing has been published by Bookforum, Men's Journal, Tin House, Hazlitt, and Rolling Stone. He is the author of the collection Transitory and the novel Reel. He's on Twitter at @TobiasCarroll.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
As of right now, my first book is still about a month from its release date, so I’m not sure that I can answer this in full. That said, having a book accepted for publication was a definite boost to my confidence as a writer--that sense that someone else enjoyed this work enough to commit to publishing it. I’ve also been very lucky to be working with two presses--Civil Coping Mechanisms and Rare Bird--who each have an aesthetic that I really admire.

In the last few years, I started introducing surreal or fantastical elements into my fiction after staying mostly on the realistic side of things for many years. I’d say that’s the main difference there: making use of those elements where they felt appropriate.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
In the late 1990s, I did a music zine called Eventide, which led to me doing some freelance music writing. Through a combination of the two, I met a guy who was starting a journal, small press, and literary website. He asked me if I wanted to write some fiction; I gave it a try and the habit stuck.

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?
It varies. For something longer, I usually have an idea of how best to make it work before I start writing. Sometimes shorter pieces vary wildly from first draft to final version. (And my novel Reel went through a whole lot of false starts before I found an opening that clicks.)

4 - Where does a 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?
Some of my stories have begun through prompts: my story “The Wenceslas Men” began its life when I was asked to write a cosmic horror story for a reading, for one thing, Others might begin with a specific image or location (the story “Winter Montage, Hoboken Station” comes to mind). The novel I’m working on right now is somewhat fragmented in its structure, and so far, two of the pieces within it have been published on their own. And I’d like to return to the narrator of the story “New Evidence of the Kings County Sasquatch” in something new, but the one attempt I made at it didn’t really work for me.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I really enjoy doing readings. They can be incredibly useful on a very basic level–in terms of seeing how the language in a piece sounds, for one thing. And it can also be inspiring to see what other writers are doing, and getting a sense of what might be possible. There have been a few cases where hearing someone else’s story helped unblock me on something wholly unrelated that I’d been working on.

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?
The concerns that come up in my fiction tend to reveal themselves more after I’ve finished a story. I had a very bad experience many years ago when I tried to start with a theme first; the ensuing project ended up feeling all too heavy-handed.

As far as themes that interest me? What loneliness or solitude can do to a person is definitely one of them. It’s something that I find myself returning to repeatedly, even when I’m not entirely aware of it at first.

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?
I do think that an awareness of political and social issues is important, as is advocacy--though the nature of that may vary from writer to writer.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I think it’s important; I’ve been lucky to have not had any serious disagreements with any of the editors I’ve worked with. I have gotten a lot of good feedback from editors, both in terms of my fiction and the nonfiction and criticism I write on a pretty regular basis.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
A few years ago, I was house-sitting for friends. In their apartment at the time was a printout of an Eleanor Roosevelt quote, which I managed to misread. I believe the actual phrase is, “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” In my mind, I read that as, “You must do the thing you cannot do,” which seemed very compelling.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (short stories to the novel)? What do you see as the appeal?
There are things you can do with a short story that don’t work as well for novels: experimenting with form is one thing that comes to mind. Some stories need 10 pages to tell; some need 200.

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?
It varies somewhat. I freelance full-time, and sometimes finding the time in the middle of the day depends on how certain projects are going.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I try to have a couple of different projects going on at once, so that I can turn to something else if I’m blocked on another project.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I’d like to say pines, but that’s more idealized than anything. I grew up in central New Jersey, and so there aren’t that many smells that seem all that specific to the area. Strangely, chlorine in pools does bring back memories of going swimming at the Y with my dad when I was a kid.

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?
Music’s played a big role in a lot of my fiction. Some of the stories in Transitory were inspired by specific songs, and Reel opens at a punk show. And I studied film in college, so that’s also played a part in how I relate to storytelling. (Sometimes to a fault.)

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
So, so many. There are a host of writers who have been influential for my work–Javier Marias, Kelly Link, Warren Ellis, William Gibson, and Ralph Ellison all come to mind. But it’s also great to feel like a part of a literary community here: my friend Jason Diamond, who founded Vol.1 Brooklyn, has a memoir out later this year, and there a host of friends and writers who live nearby (Sean H. Doyle, Dolan Morgan, Natalie Eilbert, Michele Filgate, Michael J. Seidlinger, Lincoln Michel, Kyle Lucia Wu, Brian Joseph Davis, Emily Schultz, D. Foy) or further afield (Gabino Iglesias, Mairead Case, J. David Osborne, Rios de la Luz, Duncan B. Barlow, Rahawa Haile, Luke B.Goebel) who I’ve gotten to know over the years.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
More longform nonfiction; more essays.

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?
I’ve worked a whole lot of office jobs over the years, but I was always doing something creative at the same time. It’s hard to imagine myself without the urge to make….something.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I don’t think I could go through life without creating things. I studied film in college, and I think, to some extent, I still approach storytelling from that angle–but it means that I have an unlimited budget and don’t have to worry about a torrential downpour washing the set away.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I recently finished reading Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks, which evocatively described both landscapes and the way in which we talk about landscapes, which is no small feat. (And it also left me with about a half-dozen books that I need to read.) As films go–a theater near my apartment recently screened Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire. It was my third time seeing it, and this time around, the elegance with which it was made really clicked for me.

20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m working on revising a novel, tentatively titled An Apolitical Song, which focuses on a trio of friends coming of age in the 1990s hardcore scene. I’m trying to write more essays as well: it’s a form that I’d like to be more confident in writing.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Sandra Ridley, Silvija




After the diminishing / dirt body kicked against kitchen wall /

Kept alive / what mercy has lessened / quietened as we speak

Of light / spoiled / cry-babying / a bunkum transubstantiated

Our cunning remains within. (“FARTHER / FATHER”)

Ottawa poet (by way of Saskatchewan) Sandra Ridley’s fourth trade poetry title is Silvija (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2016). Following her collections Fallout (Regina SK: Hagios Press, 2009), Post-Apothecary (Toronto ON: Pedlar Press, 2011) [see my review of such here] and The Counting House (BookThug, 2013) [see my review of such here], Silvija is a book-length suite broken into “five feverish elegies,” composed as a “linguistic embodiment of the traumas of psychological suffering, physical abuse, and terminal illness.” Ridley’s poetry has long managed to be remarkably precise in detail while concurrently evasive, and yet, the poems that make up Silvija can be seen as incredibly revealing, writing:

You are no less dangerous than you were as you drag

Your bones / field stones / we never once wept upon

The firmament / eight children left with the lone wife

Who would not carry the quiet / the final cardiac pall

Paled thirty years / crescent moons / scars strapped

Below the heart. (“FARTHER / FATHER”)

The poems in Silvija still manage to maintain her particular flavour of evasiveness. Ridley’s Silvija takes its title from the name of her dedicatee, a “Silvija Barons,” coupled with dictionary definitions of “Silva” and “Silvan, Silvana, Silvanæ” that open the collection, suggesting a compounded definition involving a wooded area, a creature from a wooded area and the writing produced about a wooded area. Still, Silvija includes elements that are possibly more revealing than her previous collections, exploring and attempting meaning out of a poetry of violence, trauma and healing, and furthering her capacity for the book-length exploration. And, as much as her elegies hold together as a single, extended unit, two sections were actually composed as part of other projects, such as the section “CLASP,” composed as a response to Gatineau artist Michèle Provost’s multiform art installation, “Playlist,” or an early version of “VIGIL / VESTIGE” commissioned as “an engagement with Petro Isztin’s photo installation, ‘Study of Structure and Form.’”

While the effect of Ridley’s short phrases staccato and accumulate into a complex tapestry that refuses anything straightforward, the emotional content is raw, savage and brutally stark. There are epistolary elements to Silvija, writing a narrator speaking intimately and directly to an unnamed and shifting “you,” and the poems reveal a furious content of trauma and grief, pushing to comprehend and, ultimately, heal as best as possible. As she described, quickly, her first three collections in an interview at Jacket2: “[…] the downwind effects of nuclear radiation in Fallout, medical incarceration, and the archaic and experimental treatments for tuberculosis and mental illness in Post-Apothecary, the trauma(s) of a relationship gone wrong in The Counting House[…],”Silvija writes out the trauma of loss, whether through physical and emotional abuse or death, composing four sequences – “FARTHER / FATHER,” “CLASP,” “VIGIL / VESTIGE” and “DIRGE” – that are surrounded by fragments of the fifth and final section, “IN PRAISE OF THE HEALER.” Via this simple thread, she holds the book together through a kind of mantra, or Greek Chorus, allowing that for whatever elese has occurred, healing, and even resolution, is possible (and the “healer” requires acknowledgment): “You give my hands the weight of your body. // Rest in me. // What I mean is this is where I choose to die.” What becomes so compelling is the understanding that it is through the very act of writing that allows the entire healing process, as she writes: “If you can’t speak / write in a fissured / alter-language / Of nerve-matter[.]” Indeed.

You and I—confined to our scrying room. Every falter of the limbs and every muscle of the face exposed to view. You are what I am. You cause as much sorrow. In what worse way could we vent this rage than by beating this head against these walls?

Sing for me. You seized the words out of my mouth—who suffers the most? You keep it all in. Noise—no noise. You upset me, baby. And you can’t do that.

We’re never left alone. Consider what the means are—we can’t lose what we haven’t ever had. You asked for it. You won’t get mercy. You are no more a whisper. (“CLASP”)