Wednesday, March 15, 2017

On Writing #125 : Buck Downs

Essay Ending with a Quote by William Gibson
Buck Downs

I think one of the hard things about poetry is that there’s not very much to do, in a direct or actual sense. You can be a more or less fully functioning and productive poet in about 30 minutes a day, most days, and most days, putting in more time would be a waste of sunshine and would not produce anything better than what already happened. Any poet with halfway decent work habits can finish more poetry in five years than could be read in twenty. So what’s to do with all the free time?

I may be letting the cat out of the bag here, and I apologize to my poetry peers for that. We poets, as a group, would like for it to be known that we are entirely swamped, yall. The demands of the world are too much on us, and if yall the world had a shred of conscience, you would stop bothering us with your picayune demands for love and the rent, et al.

So it’s hard some days; I roll out of bed and have hardly rinsed the crust of sleep off me before boom! another poem has appeared, in full and intransigent glory, and now I have three hours to kill until lunch.

Me, I have been so desperate for something to fill the ginormous blocks of time between poems that I have at times chosen work, and other related pursuits, that I am vocationally obliged as a poet to affect to despise as a totally bourgeois intrusion upon my liberty.

This may seem at odds with what you have heard from other poets, or even said yourself regarding the writing of poetry and time. But please take my word it: they are not to be taken seriously, these goldbricks who cry for more time. They have too much time already, and you know they do, because you can hear them every day, querying the hive mind about what show to binge watch next. The world should be your show, dipshit -- get out and star in it.

“I suspect I have spent just about exactly as much time actually writing as the average person my age has spent watching television, and that, as much as anything, may be the real secret here.” -- William Gibson, Source Code

A native of Jones County Miss., Buck Downs’ latest book is TACHYCARDIA, available from Edge Books. His chapbook Shiftless(Harvester) was recently published by above/ground press. Buck is the poetry editor of Boog City, and works at Bridge Street Books in Washington, DC.

Photo by Michael Geffner/The Inspired Word NYC

Monday, March 06, 2017

On Writing #124 : Sarah Cook

On composure
Sarah Cook

Sometimes, I think about this haunting sentence, from “On Erasure,” by Mary Ruefle:
…life is much, much more than is necessary, and much, much more than any of us can bear, so we erase it or it erases us, we ourselves are an erasure of everything we have forgotten or don't know or haven't experienced, and on our deathbed, even that limited and erased "whole" becomes further diminished, if you are lucky you will remember the one word water, all others having been erased.

Ruefle says that our lives are erasures because we cannot bear them in their entirety. I wonder about the conflicted life of the poet: simultaneously erasing and writing, erasing and writing, considering things she sometimes can’t bear to feel or remember; writing as an attempt to document, and then writing as an attempt purge.

Documenting and purging: there is a schism between the inner and outer world: between my private self and the one I make visible. And even this visible self is ruptured: I find myself intellectually, artistically, even ethically drawn toward & excited by the loss of composure—by the idea of refusing to accommodate the world’s demand of public poise—but I remain practically, viscerally scared of such a revelation. As a result, my motivation as a writer has been to creatively transpose the body into language, to alter my understanding of it via the expansion of words and, in doing so, (re)create my relationship to the body. In other words, to think and theorize my way through and around vulnerability, to walk closer toward it in words and then hope my body will follow. But what does it mean to take risks in writing that aren’t being taken in life? Where do I draw lines of responsibility and interest, of theory and practice, of personhood and poethood?

Before I came to articulate this motivation—before I’d even begun to recognize its preverbal form—I went to grad school. There are probably a lot of complicated reasons why I’ve erased almost all my memories from the composition theory course I took my first semester, but of the few that remain, I think of one almost weekly: I have no context leading up to this instance, nor any memory of what followed the moment when a professor said, with a slow deliberateness that almost revealed his southern drawl, “compose yourself.” Not to any one student in particular so much as to the room, calling attention to what the command is truly saying, compose yourself!, to make yourself readable and sensible and, as Butler might say, culturally intelligible. To be, especially if you are a woman, composed, as in emotionally contained. He didn’t say it directly to me but he might as well have, and that’s the first trick of language: to unlock a sense of self that previously wasn’t there. Suddenly, I heard the danger underlying those two superficially harmless words. And it is the loss of this composure, by which I mostly mean the appearance of composure—the revelation of the messy and complicated and uncontainable female self—which underlies the greatest form of risk I can imagine taking.

Hence the rupture: between word and body. I feel embarrassed and melodramatic making such statements, ones so clearly born of a privileged life, where risk has made few appearances. But what if this is the consequence of having confused my writing life with my real lived experiences one too many times? What does it even mean to associate risk with things like school, and poetry, and a kind of danger that is mostly visual, that is even theoretical, that hinges on the in/visibility of one’s most crafted and edited self? What do I mean when I say, “risk?” I tried mapping it out:

  • ·         potential for public failure and/or mistakes
o   being seen as out of one’s “league” or “wheelhouse”
o   being seen as trying too hard or as overly ambitious
  • ·         potential for confusion—either looking confused or confusing others
  • ·        “that’s not something I would do” -- whatever that is
  • ·         potential for embarrassment and/or over-sharing
o   to make oneself too accessible
o   to make the invisible visible
§  to lose control
o   to inject emotion where it isn’t wanted
§  to lose composure
  • ·         potential for discomfort
  • ·         potential for confrontation

There is no space for my body in this list, and yet it all wraps tightly, every single possibility, around my skin. Perhaps I say body and I’m really just addressing the signified thing: not the organism standing in front of you, but the whole and its parts envisioned in the clear space of one’s reading mind. I can spill the word “body” all over the poem, include it in every single title, without having invest(igat)ed a single bone, a single strand of hair. And while some of the things listed above have to do with gender or trying new things, all of them revolve around constructed notions of self and success: how I present my personhood to the outside world, how I make visible to you the things that will validate my life as a good one. Composed in the ways I mean to be, and unintelligible so long as I am in control of the mess—so long as it is relegated mostly to the page.

In other words, there are things we bear in our selves and there are things we bear in our writing, and these are sometimes very different things and why, what does that mean?

I don’t even know if this essay is true. Or the difference between body and word: what I think I am afraid of; what I claim to be doing, in one medium or another. If the divide is not really just a blanket.

A true thing: Last summer, I finished reading Maggie’s Nelson’s The Argonauts during the late hours of the night while sitting in a crowded terminal in O’Hare. I was waiting for my repeatedly delayed flight home after visiting my best friend in Lafayette, Indiana. The trip coincided with her 30th birthday; we drank Polish vodka and rode horses with little instruction. Why do I tell you this? Because I cannot unstitch the context of my life from my writing and questioning and thinking. Perhaps writing is the only space in which I have no ability to compartmentalize, where I can consider anything so long as it is all at once, all in the same room. Where I can un-compose and re-compose myself as language demands: where I might become suddenly brave enough to enact the things I’m driven toward. Or, to choose to write about myself as if my boundaries are clear: here is what I do, here is what I write.

I tell myself I am writing to get closer to the body, but aren’t I just keeping it at bay?
Once, when I was a young girl in middle school, I wanted to be Gwen Stefani, and sometimes I remember the sense of it so acutely: how desire can feel urgent and enthralling and inspiring and quite unrealistic; how it can keep you, in secret inner ways, reaching forward toward a self comprised of all the things. Who needs “poetry” or “theory” or “memoir,” categories of definitive composure, when you can do them all at once? Who needs a cohesive sense of style when you can wear a skirt on top of your jeans!

Does the self begin on the page, in word, and grow larger from there? Sometimes I feel like I’ve taken the longest route possible to achieve a short thing. Sometimes I feel like I’ve started a life backwards, relegating my achievements, my ideas, my best selves to language. As if I need to know the right words first before anything happens: as if words make up the vessel in which I’ll be caught. As if poetry ever had anything to do with the soul.

When I’m writing, I tell myself it is toward messiness and complexity. But I repeatedly run head first into an inherent disposition toward composure, toward control, engulfed in the fear of anything otherwise. Can fear be a habit? I tell myself that I figure out important personal things in writing, but perhaps I am making it all up, the words acting like a safe distance, like an arm’s reach I can keep myself at always. Sometimes, I’ll realize a mistake I’ve made in life, see something in the poem and chastise myself for not having recognized it sooner elsewhere. But with any instance of clarity, I’m never learning from my mistakes so much as finally catching up with them, out of breath, making space for myself slowly over long stretches of uneven time. Trying to un-contain and re-contain my body through language and yet remaining consistently frozen with my back against the wall, with my back against the page. A safe or habitual or made-up response to the world’s pervasive demand that I compose myself.

Sarah Cook is: a) some mountainous pictograph, b) a misguided cover letter, or c) trying real hard, promise. She has work forthcoming in VIDA, and elsewhere.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

We Who Are About To Die : Kyle Flemmer

Kyle Flemmer is an author, editor, and publisher from Calgary, Canada. Kyle founded The Blasted Tree Publishing Company in 2014, a small press and community of emerging Canadian artists. He graduated from Concordia University in Montreal with a double-major in Western Society & Culture and Creative Writing. Kyle is passionate about social satire, philosophy, and science, and enjoys writing poetry, short stories, and critical essays. His work has been published by NewPoetry, above/ground press, no press, Soliloquies Anthology, Gadfly Online, The Bullcalf Review, and Spacecraft Press, among others.

Where are you now?
I am currently sitting in the living room of my apartment in the neighborhood of Sunnyside, north of the river in Calgary, AB. It’s snowy outside and 10:43 pm, the time I start feeling productive and do things like write answers to interview questions, call my mom, or vacuum. Unless I have brought home burgers as a bribe, my future wife tends to resent these late-night habits, though our cat does not. At 28, I am amid the so-called prime of my life and the beginning of my career, but please don’t tell my life or career that.

What are you reading?
I’m halfway through A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch, a novel about the romantic entanglements of a close-knit group of bourgie mid-lifers. It’s very well written, and though the prose is purpler than grape drink – everyone is petulant, clever, and dashing beyond believe – I feel I’m learning something about writing complex motivations. I’m also reading through a box of chapbooks I recently received from rob mclennan at above/ground press, including stuff from derek beaulieu, Christian Bök, Stan Rogal, the Touch the Donkey series, and much, much more.

What have you discovered lately?
My most recent discoveries include: the trade economy existing among author, artist, and publisher types whereby creativity otherwise monetized or unavailable is exchanged in kind, building community and opening access where it might otherwise not exist; and an increasing fascination with concrete and visually-oriented poetry, especially that which incorporates novel advances in consumer media and technology (like scanners, printers, computer manipulation, social media, etc.) into the exploratory process.

Where do you write?
The bulk of my writing is done sitting in the living room of my apartment in Sunnyside, though I have been known to scribble into a battered notebook elsewhere from time to time. I try to switch up my writing implements, as I seem to hit different rhythms with, for example, a typewriter versus a pen and paper. Thus, I write into my computer, my journal, the notepad function of my phone, on my typewriter, or a scrap of paper. Luckily, all of these are instruments are mobile, so my writing practice is more dependent on state of mind than time or place.

What are you working on?
At the moment I’m working to complete a book-length project of visual poetry I’ve been referring to as ‘Barcode Poetry’. Each part is a unique typographic code generated on my 1940 Remington Rand Deluxe Model 5 typewriter. As I hope to build some public enthusiasm for the series while I get it up to 100 parts (it’s in the 60s now), I’ve been sending out early drafts of the project for publication, and am having some surprising success. Otherwise, I’ve been working on a variety of print media via my small press, The Blasted Tree Publishing Co. In the last month we’ve put out several leaflets, longsheets, and the like, and we have a chapbook and a short poster series coming out over the next couple weeks.

Have you anything forthcoming?
I am personally looking forward to the publication of two excerpts from ‘Barcode Poetry’, both of which will be appearing online. The first comes out from h& on Friday, February 10th, and we should see the second batch posted by Bottlecap Press on February 18th. I also have a review of Svetlana Lilova’s experimental poetry book, Metaphysical Dictionary, forthcoming in filling Station magazine. My review attempts to replicate her dictionary-like form as a way to demonstrate my impressions of the book. Meanwhile, The Blasted Tree will see the publication of obscuritysquared, a neuroscience-inspired chapbook of poetry by Montreal scientist, musician, and poet Michael Smilovitch, then a poster series made from visual poetry by Columbian designer and author Laura Rojas. Exciting times!

What would you rather be doing?
Less of the day job, more of the writing/publishing. Obviously, paying the bills is hard (i.e. impossible) without the former, though I spend a lot of time doing the latter, and wish it were more. Some of the happiest times I’ve experienced were when I was free to write (perhaps a little inebriated) without haste, when I’ve connected with friends both new and old over the subject of writing, or when a product of my creative labour is well-received by the community I aspire to serve. To that end, I would like to do more of what I am doing, but better, more effectively. Unfortunately, the double-life routine is a little taxing, yet I know I’m very fortunately to have a bourgeoning creative practice I can tend in my spare time.

Photographic Module
Command Tasks

Observation during
      Zodiacal libration

Lunar command
      of earth

Star light through sextant:
      In through the

Near side lunar module
      Moon the L4 sextant module

Specific solar corona segments
      earthshine by region

Dark surface fields
      eclipse the light

Galactic command
      earth terminator

> Found poem rearranging “Command Module Photographic Tasks” table (pp. 3-89) from Apollo Program Summery Report [JSC-09423]

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

On Writing #123 : Susan Glickman

An Infinity of Blues:  Art as a Form of Attention
Susan Glickman

Before I learned to write I learned to draw and, to some extent, I still see the former as a more nuanced and sophisticated version of the latter. Making art is a way of representing the world to yourself; of looking closer so you can see what’s really there. The eye as microscope; the page as time-machine. Sharpen the focus. Slow everything down. Then copy what you see as accurately as you can.

There’s a radical honesty required from both writing and painting because copying what you see, not what you are supposed to see, challenges convention. To write what you feel and think, not what you are supposed to feel and think is even more subversive. This is how art frees the constrained and vindicates the powerless. It turns the bystander into an activist.

I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t a bystander; when I didn’t feel apart from things, observing them. I suspect this is typical of anyone drawn to the arts. A person fully immersed in the world isn’t compelled to scrutinize it, but if something or someone has flung you out of the centre to the periphery you necessarily inhabit a space of exploration. This is frightening but also liberating, which is why we continue to make art despite loneliness, frustration, lack of response, and lack of remuneration.

Until I went to university, the visual arts were just as important to me as the literary ones, but then I moved into my head – a space even smaller and more cluttered than a library carrel - and writing took over. There no longer seemed to be any way paint and charcoal could represent the honey and vinegar of reality; only language, parsed into metaphor and allusion, quotation and dislocation, could build a second world with anything like the variety and terror of the first. Words have been my medium ever since. I have worked as an English professor, a creative writing instructor, a mentor, and an editor; written poetry and fiction for adults and children, scholarly essays and dissertations, and book reviews. For recreation, when I wasn’t hungrily devouring other people’s books, I played Scrabble and Boggle and did cryptic crosswords. I even read Roget’s Thesaurus for pleasure! I was completely besotted with language.

Part of this intoxication was childlike: I loved playing with the sounds and textures of words. And part of it was more adult and urgent: if I only learned enough, maybe one day I could write something true. Daily life hurt; it made no sense. But literature would save me, if only I could write my way in to the truth and then out again, to offer it to others.

Then in September of 2015, exhausted by literary disappointment and juggling family demands, employment, too many illnesses and deaths, I took a break from writing and went to art school. And in drawing and painting and sculpture I’ve recovered the joy of making stuff not as a path to “the truth” -- which I no longer believe in -- but as an end in itself. When a model is posing in the middle of a room and twenty people are working at easels in a circle around him you invariably get twenty versions of “the truth,” each dependent on the painter’s height, angle and acuity of vision, hand-eye co-ordination, native skill, learned technique, quality of pigments and brushes, knowledge of other painters’ work, emotional state that day, life experience …. In the art studio it is immediately obvious that everyone’s view is partial, as is everyone’s ability.

This is something writers too often forget, but remembering it would help us be more generous not only to others, but also to ourselves. There is so much vitriol among reviewers of Canadian poetry these days. Maybe it is fueled by the reviewers’ own frustration at trying to make work that is not only authentic to their individual experience but somehow revelatory of a larger “truth”, not merely well-crafted but somehow canonical. What if we relieved ourselves of that burden and acknowledged that the task is impossible, and that none of us will ever get it right? Would that make the poetic enterprise more enjoyable?

For me it has.

Studying the laws of perspective, gradation, and shading, mixing pigments to emulate the colour wheel, trying to understand spatial relationships -- all of this is bringing me back to poetry with renewed faith and energy. I’m no longer worried that I’ll never write anything great, I just want to write something good. I can never capture everything I know about a person when I paint their portrait, but if the subject is recognizable and my own feelings come through, I’m happy. The past few years of incessant feuding in the Canlit scene and of my style of writing falling out of favour made me doubt that was sufficient. But art has always been my way of paying attention, and that attention connects me to the world and makes that world liveable. Without it there is just clutter and noise; conflict and appetite. With it, cobalt, pthalo, indigo, ultramarine. An infinity of blues.

Originally from Montreal, Susan Glickman is a recovering academic working as a freelance editor and creative writing instructor in Toronto. She is the author of 6 books of poetry (a 7th due out sometime soon), 3 novels for adults, 3 novels for children, and a book of literary criticism.