1/15/2021

a constructed conversation on the frontier of dreaming

When we release ourselves from the need to boil the poem down to a single meaning or theme, the mind can move in a dreamlike, associative way. This associative movement in poetry can at first feel disorienting, but it is actually quite close to the way parts of our minds, unbeknownst to our conscious selves, constantly function, simultaneously attentive to the outside world, but also thinking, processing, half dreaming.

...

Poetry is a constructed conversation on the frontier of dreaming. It is a mechanism by which the essential state of reverie can be made available to our conscious minds. By means of the poem, we can enter this state of reverie with all our faculties alert and intact. Poems make possible a conscious entry into the preconscious mind, a lucid dreaming.

Poems are there, waiting, whenever we feel we need our minds to think in a different way. We can go into the poem whenever we like, as many times as we want, with full alertness. We can be aware of reverie while it is happening, and can hold on to that experience in the poem. Reading the poem allows us to achieve, consciously, a particular kind of very precious awareness.

- Matthew Zapruder, in an excerpt from Why Poetry? published at The Paris Review. You can read the whole excerpt here.

1/13/2021

lighting it as an attempt

Annick MacAskill: Are there choices you make at the beginning of a project besides perspective/voice that you find determine the “flow/force” of your writing? Like the kind of figurative language you set out to use, imagery, setting…?

Sue Goyette: I listen for the kind of language that’s percolating and the way words want to be strung along to create a meaning I don’t know yet. I have to say, a lot of the writing I do fails and doesn’t see the light of day. Maybe most of it. I sometimes get heavy-handed and drive it into a wall of being too literal, too wordy, too repetitive, too whoo hoo, too Sue, too important, too “meaningful,” too out there, so weird that I’m a little aghast by it and by weird I don’t mean a good weird. I get ready for this failure by lighting it as an attempt, as part of an ongoing practice that I’m choosing to engage with without much invested in an outcome. So one of the early decisions I make is consenting to taking the risk.

- Sue Goyette, in conversation with Annick MacAskill over at The Puritan. You can read the whole thing here.

1/06/2021

"Strangers" is on its way in 2021!




My fourth poetry collection, Strangers, will arrive in the world in April 2021. The book will be published by Biblioasis, with (loving and fastidious!) editing by Luke Hathaway and (beautiful and striking!) cover design by Christina Angeli. I can't wait to get it into readers' hands.

Strangers is a themed collection drawn from a decade of writing (the earliest in the book date their composition back to 2011), but written in earnest since the birth of my son and the publication of The News in 2016. The poems explore lineages – familial and literary – and all the ways those we hold closest are both a part of us and, in some ways, forever beyond our reach. 

Written during a time when my two half-brothers died, my son was born, and my mother was diagnosed with dementia, it’s also about early middle age: a time when the great loves of our lives begin arriving and departing simultaneously, with little time to fully attend to them all. Strangers is one small attempt at such attendance. 

From the book's jacket cover:

“It makes no sense. You would be strangers / if not for this.”

In Strangers, Rob Taylor makes new the epiphany poem: the short lyric ending with a moment of recognition or arrival. In his hands, the form becomes not simply a revelation in words but, in Wallace Stevens’ phrase, “a revelation in words by means of the words.” The epiphany here is not only the poet’s. It’s ours. A book about the songlines of memory and language and the ways in which they connect us to other human beings, to read Strangers is to become part of the lineages (literary, artistic, familial) that it braids together—to become, as Richard Outram puts it, an “unspoken / Stranger no longer.”

If you'd like to read samples from the book, I've posted a few on my website:
Some other poems in the book have been published recently in online magazines, and can be read here, here, here, and here.

Ok, that's enough freebies! I'd love if you'd think about pre-ordering the book, preferably from your local independent bookstore. You can also pre-order it online at Chapters or Amazon.

Goodness knows what next Tuesday is going to look like, let alone the launch of a book four months from now, but keep an eye on the blog for updates. I hope to see you, in the flesh or online, sometime later this year!

12/30/2020

the 2020 roll of nickels year in review

I know you're probably searching for silver linings in this year largely-lost to the COVID-19 pandemic. They're likely few and far between, and you'll take whatever you can get. Well, dear reader, look no further

2019 was the quietest year in this blog's 14 year history, featuring a mere 25 blog posts. 2020 was on course for a similarly sluggish total (I posted only eight times between January and May), but once the initial shock of the pandemic and quarantine had subsided (and my wife and I had figured out how to manage two kids under five with - initially - no child care support) I set to work making Roll of Nickels a more vibrant space for the remainder of 2020. If I wasn't going to be able to talk poetry, and celebrate new books, in person, I was damn well going to do it here. 68 blog posts followed between June and December.

Those posts largely fell into two categories, neither of which will surprise longtime readers: author interviews and quotes from the interviews and essays of others. The quotes were derived from a stack of books, and from 120+ bookmarks I'd accumulated in my browser. All in all, I posted 43 quotes in 2020, way up from the one lonely quote I posted in 2019... Excerpts will continue trickling out on the blog well into next February, after which I suppose I'll have to start reading the internet all over again. If you're interested in quotes on writing, click here to read them in one endless list, or check out the "quotes on writing by..." section of the sidebar to select particular writers who most interest you.

2020 was also a big year for my interviews with poets and writers. I published eleven interviews this year (tying last year's record), and in the process surpassed 70 interviews all-time (you can browse all my interviews here). You can read highlights from this year's interviews below, which once again were primarily conducted for my Poetry Month interview series with Read Local BC. Much thanks to them, and to EVENT and The Puritan, for providing space for my interviews in 2020.

The GPIAOSAT(NT)
is in the house!
Beyond the blog, for me 2020 proved to be a well-timed off year between books (I've had a poetry collection or anthology out every year since 2016, and my fourth poetry collection, Strangers, will be out in 2021). I wrapped up my final Best Canadian Poetry 2019 and What the Poets Are Doing launches (in Victoria, Halifax and Fredericton) in the pre-COVID months, flying back from Fredericton less than a week before the country went into lockdown. I even managed to sneak in a few interviews promoting the various books. 

After that, things got quiet, though I did manage to write a couple short essays on my experiences editing Best Canadian Poetry 2019 and selecting the poems for the Poetry in Transit program. I devoted most of the rest of my poetry-community-building energy to organizing fun nonsense on Twitter, like the "Poetry March Madness" competition I held in March/April (which aimed to crown "the greatest poet of all of space and time"), and the "Book Cover Emoji" quizzes I ran throughout the summer and fall. Oh, and writing out every last word of my newly expanded, text-based "Introduction to Poetry" course with SFU, which has been re-branded as "Poetry 1" and will get started in January! 

The blog highlights are all from interviews this year. Let's get to it!



April 2020: The In-Between Place: An Interview with Francine Cunningham

"I didn’t want to include a translation guide for the Cree because if you know, you know, and if you don’t, that’s okay. I hope that there is a good balance in the book for folks, but ultimately I know who I write for, who I work for, and I’m okay with that." - Francine Cunningham

April 2020: Bowing to Silence: An Interview with Lorna Crozier

"One of the reasons I love poetry is that it bows to silence. There are spaces after the end of the line and spaces between stanzas and sometimes spaces before you get to the end of the page. Those spaces pay tribute to what can’t be spoken, to pauses, to hesitations, to gaps in our knowing and speaking. When we chose one word, we are gagging dozens of others. Poems, I believe, honour the impossibility of being able to utter something that matters in order to utter something that matters. Only in that state of doubt and doubtless failure can poetry come into being." - Lorna Crozier

April 2020: to love our beautiful planet even more: An Interview with annie ross

"i am grateful i grew up in a home where ghosts and others considered ‘impossible’ by mainstream culture were my everyday experiences." - annie ross

April 2020: Visible and Unmistakable: An Interview with Kyla Jamieson

"One of the fundamental questions I ask myself is how I want my work to make people feel. Where do I want to take people, and what do I want to leave them with? Can I leave people feeling like they’re closer to themselves than they were when they started reading?" - Kyla Jamieson

 

April 2020: Dew on the Hummingbird's Wing: An Interview with Yvonne Blomer

"The idea from Lilburn of “thrusting the world aside to grasp the presumed light within” is very much an issue with poetry. What is the light (or meaning, in a metaphorical sense) to that which I’m seeing before me? Why can’t we just see the river and let the river be?” - Yvonne Blomer

April 2020: Playfulness and Gravitas: An Interview with Jillian Christmas

"I try in my writing to speak from my experience but to leave room for the experiences that I could only ever imagine." - Jillian Christmas

April 2020: The Monastery of Poetry: An Interview with Evelyn Lau

"Most of my thirties, when Living Under Plastic came out, was basically spent in hibernation. I had stopped writing prose, and couldn’t find enough work to sustain myself; rather than admit my increasingly dire circumstances, I hunkered down and went through my savings as slowly as possible. When your external life shrinks, your interior life opens up — something to remember, perhaps, in these current times." - Evelyn Lau

May 2020: To Reach Each Other With Love: An Interview with Shazia Hafiz Ramji

"Port of Being was the first time my parents found out about the extent of my addiction. I am very lucky that they accepted me and continue to love me. In a strange way, that book has allowed me to feel more at ease in the world because it loosened some secrets (especially the addiction-related ones) and trauma." - Shazia Hafiz Ramji

September 2020: Old Stories Made New: An Interview with David Ly

"The book challenges ideas of what the narrator thinks is safe. The queer community (online and off) is lauded for being a “safe space,” which isn’t actually true: There are pockets of danger with different forms of discrimination. There are also moments of intimacy where it should feel safe, and it’s not." - David Ly

October 2020: The Shadow Element: An Interview with Terry Ann Carter

"I am also a lyric poet, and write and read longer forms. The longer poems feel (sometimes) like a story, or a re-creation of some particular place or person or relationship. There is metaphor, and extended metaphor, the lines just bubbling up and sizzling on the page. Haiku has a quietness about it; a shadow element." - Terry Ann Carter

November 2020: The Hurricane Inside One Household: An Interview with Tanja Bartel

"There’s this misconception that people who publish their first book later in life were struggling to do it all that time. Nope. Some of us simply spent years doing something else." - Tanja Bartel

I'm so looking forward to 2021, first and foremost for the vaccine that's going to get blasted into my arm, but also for the deluge of interviews I'll get to bring you. My Read Local BC series will be back for year three, and my already-completed interviews with poets Sadiqa de Meijer, Jen Sookfong Lee and Shaun Robinson will find their way into publication (in addition to whatever else I cook up). And, y'know, having a new poetry book out in the world is going to be pretty nice, too!

"When your external life shrinks, your internal life opens up," wrote Evelyn Lau in April. I hope that proved true for you in this difficult year, and that your external life gets a chance to open up, too, in 2021.

Happy New Year, all!

12/23/2020

The Hurricane Inside One Household: An Interview with Tanja Bartel


Little Surprises 
A circle of smoking nurses. The power in a newborn’s spring-loaded kick. I’m trying to remain unpunched—I’ve gone decades. Fearful creatures survive the longest. A drunk group of you will never throw me in a pool in my new yellow dress at a summer party. I’ll lie on my back and kick my friends. Grab handfuls of skin where there is no collar.

(Goose Lane Editions, 2020).
Reprinted with permission.
---



Tanja Bartel holds an MFA from the University of British Columbia. Her poetry and non-fiction have appeared in numerous venues including Geist, The Antigonish Review, and the American Journal of Medical Genetics. She lives in Pitt Meadows, BC.

---

Rob Taylor: In the acknowledgements for Everyone at This Party, you thank the poet Jen Currin for introducing you to poetry in 2012. That’s a fairly speedy path from introduction to first book. That said, you came to poetry later in life than many writers. Could you talk about your path to writing, and how it eventually brought you to poetry?

Tanja Bartel: I sent my manuscript out to two publishers the day after submitting it as my MFA thesis. One rejected, one accepted! My first time sending out a manuscript, so the publishing part was quick, yes, but the process was seven years in the making.

There’s this misconception that people who publish their first book later in life were struggling to do it all that time. Nope. Some of us simply spent years doing something else. I’ve taught high school since my twenties and raised two children, one of whom has a rare, yet-to-be named genetic mutation, the main feature of which is extreme head-banging and self-injury. He’s severely brain-damaged and at very high risk for sudden death seizure. Focusing on my son’s health and safety has consumed me these past 21 years. I’ve only ever written two poems about this and they’re in the book. I won’t write another.

There’s this misconception that people who publish their first book later in life were struggling to do it all that time. Nope. Some of us simply spent years doing something else. I’ve taught high school since my twenties and raised two children …

I wrote a few poems in a notebook as a teenager and then almost nothing until I was 48. A girl in my high school grad class wrote a poem for the yearbook that was so good, and I was so envious that I quit, believing I could never write like her. Of course I couldn’t, because that was her and this is me. I wish I could tell my younger self that. I wrote another handful of poems when I was 20. I quit again because I convinced myself—and maybe my whole generation convinced ourselves—that unless it leads to a career, don’t bother. It was the ’80s and I wanted to wear the power suit with giant shoulder pads and go to work in a skyscraper. I ended up directing my love of words into teaching high school English in a small working-class town, and I’ve never regretted it.

Many years in, I felt like a fraud though. Here I was telling people to write things when I wasn’t. So, I applied to The Writer’s Studio for fiction; I had a 300-page novel draft I’d written at my kitchen table without the benefit of any courses or workshops. Here’s the weird part: the night before the deadline, I added to my application three of those poems I’d written decades earlier. Imagine my shock when they accepted me for the poetry cohort. I almost declined. If I wasn’t in fiction, I wasn’t interested.

But I showed up anyway and bought all three of mentor Jen Currin’s books before the program started. I’d never read poetry like hers—the surrealism, imagery, subject matter, and strangeness. It made me want to write poetry. I began a process of serious reading, immersing myself in as many different poetic voices as I could. I was the happiest I’d been in years. TWS and Jen did that for me. When she wrote a blurb for the back of my first book, the circle was complete.

RT: I’m writing these questions to you from the Vancouver suburb of Port Moody, right near the “end of the line” for the Skytrain (and therefore the edge of the civilized world for many Vancouverites). In Port Moody, our orbit extends a bit further, I would say as far as Pitt Meadows, where you live, and neighbouring Maple Ridge. Your orbit, I suspect, extends a bit further East, likely to Mission, where you teach high school. After that, there’s not all that much left to extend to—Harrison and Hope (and beyond that, as the jokes go, all is lost).

While Vancouver proper has been written about endlessly in poetry, Vancouver’s suburban “outer limits” (and “outer outer limits,” and “outer outer outer limits”) have hardly been explored, with one major exception being Elizabeth Bachinsky’s debut collection Home of Sudden Service, about Maple Ridge. It was wonderful and fitting, then, to see that Elizabeth edited your book. I’m sure that was no coincidence. How did you come to Elizabeth’s poetry, and how did it, and her editorial advice, shape your own thinking and writing about the region?

TB: At the risk of appearing a jackass, it was a coincidence, to me anyway. I didn’t know Elizabeth wrote about the suburbs because I knew of her as an editor and teacher, not as a poet. (She was a guest speaker during my MFA). I bought Home of Sudden Service as soon as she agreed to work with my manuscript, but fear of sliding into her style stopped me from reading it until after we completed the editing process. It’s such an incredible book. She captured details of the outer limits beyond the suburbs so truly. I felt myself inside these poems—the landscape, those teenage girls and boyfriends, the ones who disappeared. So yes, wonderful and fitting!

I appreciated Elizabeth’s ideas for ordering the poems, something I think many poets struggle with. She agreed with my decision to have no sections, but suggested I alternate the poems in first person with those in third person, so the “I” and “we,” take turns, almost like a chorus. I also liked how she suggested I link each poem to the next with a similar image or word, so the end of one poem often connects to the beginning of the next. For me, these echoes create pleasure and momentum.

RT: While I missed those links on a conscious level, I certainly felt them—Everyone at This Party’s dreamlike flow from poem to poem pulled me in. Three major entities move through that “flow”: your father and a friend, both of whom have died, and the suburbs themselves. Do you think of these “characters” as being interconnected in some way, as speaking to one another or setting a collective mood?

TB: My close friend died of her addiction in her beautiful home a few blocks away from me, and the pain of her loss sat beside me when I wrote much of this book. I suppose while I was at it, I also thought of the other great death of my life, my father’s. After both of their deaths, I felt close to that W. H. Auden poem, “Stop all the clocks.” People were mowing their lawns like nothing happened, going in and out of Superstore like zombies. I thought, How dare you carry on?! I went for a lot of walks and the same blank eyes of windows never blinked. The hurricane inside one household, inside one mind, doesn’t show. There’s no real “street life” here, other than dogs walking owners and the power-washer obsessed.

RT: Does a direct current run between “Death” and “The Suburbs”?

TB: Alcohol and death in the suburbs did become a concept for this book, but only after I’d written hundreds of poems first, and this cluster formed. What eats away at you is unavoidable; you can’t help but return to certain ideas and subjects. (Dear reader, most of my poems are death-free!!)

RT: Ha! Death is inescapable in poetry, as in life. An increasingly less common theme in poetry today, though, is religion. It jumped out at me, then, when two poems in Everyone at This Party riffed on the existential questioning of the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes. What draws you to Ecclesiastes, and does it connect in some way to your thinking about the suburbs (“there is nothing new under the sun”)?

TB: I’m drawn to the Book of Ecclesiastes for its straight goods. It says bluntly, “Look, we’re dying here so don’t get your hopes up—and don’t get all attached. All your hard work will amount to dust, and even if you’re successful, a fool will inherit your money and squander it. Life is arbitrary and people don’t get what they deserve.” Whereas most books of the New Testament come down to love, hope, and purpose, Ecclesiastes dares to hammer throughout, “Everything is meaningless” and “There is nothing new under the sun.”

Maybe I’m weird but this is comforting to me, kind of the opposite of toxic positivity. I like the acknowledgement that horrible things happen to good people and the undeserving win; this is what we all see happening anyway. It doesn’t pretend to make us feel better. I know people who’ve spent years quietly helping others without fanfare, and then fall on hard times, yet a cruel impeached president plays on, enjoying unmerited attention, wealth, and power.

Whereas most books of the New Testament come down to love, hope, and purpose, Ecclesiastes dares to hammer throughout, ‘Everything is meaningless’ and ‘There is nothing new under the sun.’

RT: “Fairness” is very out of style these days, it’s true. What role does religion play in your writing, more generally?

TB: Religion plays a role in the big ideas behind the poems. Some of these poems wonder about luck and chance vs. choice and personal effort, as in these lines from “A Brief Dalliance with the World”:

crows—who are allowed to fly—choose to jerk around
this city instead. Free will not capitalized upon, even with

the means. It makes me wonder how much
choice we have. We can walk, but we won’t walk out.

I wonder, too, whether we are capable of changing our ways. I lean towards No, we aren’t, but I also love finding out I’m wrong.

RT: There’s nothing better, eh? Here’s hoping we both are.

While our destructive, hyper-consumptive ways don’t change, our suburbs do: the Port Moody I grew up in is hardly recognizable now, replaced with high-rises and microbreweries. Pitt Meadows too, is changing, with townhouses springing up daily along the Fraser. Do you think the town you write about in Everyone at This Party will be there much longer? Will any part of you miss it if it goes?

TB: Development continues to multiply beside the Katzie Reserve. I get a bad feeling when I walk along the shore of the Fraser River, where hundreds of buildings have replaced the bush. There’s also some prime farmland where I used to walk with my kids to see the donkeys, and now it’s being paved over for industrial use. I could cry. I’d see coyotes bouncing on mice as part of the scene, but they’re pushed to our yards, and our cats. One thing they can’t pave over, though, is the protected wetland along the Pitt and Alouette Rivers, sanctuary to hundreds of species, and this is what I love about living here. Walking and thinking along these rivers is my writing process.

RT: That’s a hell of a writing process! And it segues us nicely into talking about how you build your poems. The “Current Phobia” poems which recur throughout your book are fascinating: they all have the structure of the glosa poem (where a four-line quote appears as the final lines in four ten-line stanzas), but only one of them actually “glosses” another poem. Gloss-less glosas! Could you talk about the series, and what drew you to using the form (which, in rhyme scheme and line length you are loyal to—more so than most poets) minus its main ingredient?

TB: I was introduced to the form as an optional exercise in Susan Musgrave’s poetry workshop during my MFA, but I became obsessed. The schoolteacher in me was both drawn to and repelled by writing within these “rules,” and I spent a couple of years getting them right.

I read a ton of Canadian poets while mining for lines, which I really loved. Gabe Foreman’s A Complete Encyclopedia of Different Types of People was one of the funniest. I used lines from his poem “Dish Bitches” in one of the glosas. Earlier versions of the “gloss-less glosas” did reference other poems, but due to some controversy around one of the poets involved, I decided to rewrite the poems without them. It was unfortunate yet liberating to do my own thing. There is no law that says you can’t write four 10-line stanzas with lines 6, 9, and 10 rhyming, so that’s what I did; I’d grown attached to the form.

Still, I might return to the true rules and come back to an idea I had for a book of glosas paying homage to Canadian poets, or an anthology of Canadian poets “glossing” each other. But of course, the concept is dead now because I said I’d do it. (Never say what you’re going to do).

RT: Oh, do it! I’ve already got a few I could send you. (Ah hell, now when you don’t do it, I’ll assume it’s because you didn’t want to deal with rejecting me. I share a lot of insecurities with teenage Tanja…)

Another form I sense you channeling in these poems is the ghazal, in which poems are assembled out of independent couplets that are only tangentially linked. Many of your poems, including the book’s title poem, are built out of one or two-line statements assembled together with stanza breaks between them, and even when that’s not the case, such lines leap out of larger blocks of text (for instance, “My back seat soaks up the parts of the river / my dog kept,” which opens one of your longer poems, but could easily have thrived as a haiku). Have you always been interested in that length of thought/line? If not, when did you come to it and what did it open up for you in your writing? Am I right to suspect the ghazal played a role in the process?

It fascinates me that even when the mind wanders, it wanders quite efficiently, exhausting a certain topic when the brain perseverates on it.

TB: The ghazal is not a form I have sought out! More likely, it’s my fragmented writing process. I aim to make each line unpredictable, but with those tangential connections. I have always loved and worked from individual lines and aphoristic thoughts. They often come as absurd, blunt statements that I “hear” in my mind like, “The bladder has more say than sleep.” I do a lot of walking to ease my worried mind, and I jot lines while moving. Over time, they start to stack up. They magically coalesce over time, even though written on different days, sometimes months apart. It fascinates me that even when the mind wanders, it wanders quite efficiently, exhausting a certain topic when the brain perseverates on it. (Or maybe it’s because we all walk around recycling mostly the same thoughts every day). I wrote most of my poems this way. The poem that spills out in a single pour is an exhilarating and rare thing, isn’t it?

RT: Indeed, which leaves us futilely chasing that same high for another few months or years, until it happens again… That’s one of the things, I think, that drives people to writing programs: the need for a kick start.

For people looking to take an in-depth writing program at a Vancouver university, the two go-to options are UBC’s Creative Writing program and SFU’s Writer’s Studio, both of which you’ve already mentioned you’ve taken. Many celebrated local writers have passed through one or the other, but you’re the first person I know who’s done both.  Could you talk about that a little? What inspired you to take one, and then take the second?

TB: Being in education, I strongly believe in the idea of lifelong learning—although that gets expensive. While there is a salary increase for teachers who get a master’s degree, it wasn’t a deciding factor. I craved that writing community. I’m a person who is always game, who says yes to everything—readings, speaking, social events. I grieved the end of the Writer’s Studio in 2012 because I felt that I’d found my people. When it ended, I was just getting started; I wanted to keep writing, and there was so much more I wanted to learn. Teaching high school involves overwhelming, relentless giving, which I thrive on, and it is rewarding, but doing both writing programs was a way of filling up again and doing other (overwhelming, relentless) creative work.

Both programs developed in me a focused attention to revision and editing. At UBC I’d spend two months on a 5,000-word nonfiction piece and Charlotte Gill (one of the greatest teachers of my life) would say something like, “It’s good for a first draft.” I’d slither back to the drawing board and keep at it. I developed an addiction to deadlines, but it eventually turned into self-discipline. Writing a book is a self-imposed deadline. So is sending work to magazines, journals, and contests. Once out of the program, these are the things you work for.

RT: As a teacher yourself, is there anything that you took from those programs and brought into your own teaching practice (in teaching creative writing, or more generally)?

TB: Being a student again made me a different style of teacher. And with the new BC curriculum, Creative Writing is now one of several English courses students can choose for their English credit. I teach mostly Creative Writing.

I write with my students more and love to hear them share their work. I’m often folded in half laughing, or so moved by their language I can barely cope. I give more opportunities to experiment and allow revisions after grading. Because I’ve experienced being a student as an adult, I’m closer to knowing what it takes to write on demand. I also know the satisfaction that comes with writing something you’re proud of because you did the intense work of revision.

I write with my students more and love to hear them share their work. I’m often folded in half laughing, or so moved by their language I can barely cope.

I teach more diverse literature and more living writers of all ages now. Instead of the dusty old anthology of dead white guys, I bring in my huge collection of poetry books (not that I don’t slip in some Keats and friends). I sometimes use them for silent reading; why does it always have to be a novel? It’s the best when someone spontaneously reads out a poem they liked. I’ve even had them study a whole collection and write about it. There’s the potential to learn more about precise verbs and nouns, style, and image from this kind of immersive experience. I absolutely love teaching Kayla Czaga’s first book, For Your Safety, Please Hold On. I have a few copies in my classroom. Her young age at the time of publication has made the idea of writing and publishing real to many of my creative writing students. Her poems are accessible yet use language in such a brilliant way—and she’s hilarious. Humour in poetry is unexpected for students because they see poetry as a dry, serious endeavour. I fight against their belief in the undecipherable “hidden meaning,” telling them, “You don’t know what the poet was thinking at the time, so don’t even try. The words are all there on the page. Trust your eyes—and a good dictionary app.”

RT: “The words are all there on the page”—oh, I love that! Is there anything from your high school classroom that you wish could be brought into writing workshops?

TB: One thing I’d love to bring to writing workshops, but which adults might find annoying, is more spontaneous reading aloud—not only when it’s your turn to be workshopped. Many teenage writers enjoy performing to an audience, to test out how their work sounds, to see the response. What great feedback if everyone laughs! Writing is, after all, for entertainment and intellectual engagement.


---

Get some entertainment and intellectual engagement (and laughs!) from Everyone at This Party, which you can pick up at your local bookstore, or via the Goose Lane website or, if you must, from Amazon.

12/16/2020

The Shadow Element: An Interview with Terry Ann Carter


 

diagnosis
the Christmas cactus
begins to bloom



Haiku by Terry Ann Carter
(Ekstasis Editions, 2020).
Reprinted with permission.
---



Terry Ann Carter is the author of six collections of long form poetry, two haiku guidebooks, and five haiku chapbooks. She has edited four haiku anthologies. As past president of Haiku Canada, founder of and facilitator for KaDo Ottawa (2001-2012) and Haiku Arbutus Victoria Study Group (2014-present), she has given hundreds of haiku and book arts workshops around the world. Haiku in Canada: History, Poetry, Memoir (Ekstasis Editions) and Moonflowers: Pioneering Women Haiku Poets in Canada (catkin press) were both published in 2020.

---

Rob Taylor: Could you talk a little about your “diagnosis” haiku, which you include in Haiku in Canada: History, Poetry, Memoir? How did it come into being? What do you think it suggests about what lies at the heart of a haiku?

Terry Ann Carter: The haiku “diagnosis” was written after I learned of my husband’s terminal cancer. When I came home from the doctor’s visit that revealed the cancer news, I saw our Christmas cactus on the windowsill, blooming. It had been dormant for months, and now the tiny tips of the green cactus were flowering like small pink parachutes. I remember taking the plant from the sill and sitting with it in my lap. I remember weeping. 

A reader who doesn’t know the situation would read this poem and (correctly) assume that the diagnosis was not a good one, that some illness or dis/ease was beginning to grow. But for me, the writer of the haiku, the blossoming of the cactus was part of my experience of understanding death. I would say that I was part of the bloom. That the bloom was part of me. My writing of this haiku gave me a deeper understanding. I was the poem. 



drifting
in and out of sleep
snow turns to rain

– nick avis



RT: In Haiku in Canada, you quote from Dr. Eric Amann’s The Worldless Poem, where he writes: “Clearly haiku is not a form of poetry in the Western sense” and later “haiku is more than a ‘form’ of poetry… a haiku is thus a manifestation of Zen and hence the expression of a particular state of consciousness.” As a poet who writes both haiku and other poetry, I’m curious about your response to this. Do you feel this distinction between your own haiku and your other poetry? 

TAC: Dr. Eric Amann (a founder of the Haiku Society of Canada, with George Swede and Betty Drevniok) was known for his Zen approach to haiku. His readings (and teachings) concentrated on this aspect. There were differing attitudes about the importance of Zen in the writing of haiku and since this was long before I joined the group, now called Haiku Canada, I never had the opportunity to discuss any of these ideas with him. I am not Buddhist, although I enjoy learning about this way of life. Most of the early Japanese haiku poets were either Buddhist monks, or, in the case of Chiyo-ni, a Buddhist nun. 

The concept of impermanence is at the heart of Buddhist teachings, and I am fascinated by this idea. It enters into some of my haiku, but definitely not all. I am deeply interested in the human condition, and often bring myself (in relation to others or in relation to nature or some seasonal instinct), into my haiku. 



meditation garden
for the dying
and the dying leaves

– Rhonda Ganz



RT: Do you read individual haiku, and books/anthologies of haiku, in the same way you read other poems/collections? If not, what are the differences?

TAC: I love to read haiku outdoors. Of course this is not always possible; I do it when I can. When I read haiku publicly, I ensure a “haiku silence” before the poem and after. When I am reading to a “haiku crowd,” I usually don’t read the haiku twice; these folks are accustomed to the brevity, the line breaks, the silences. When I read to the general public, I read the poems twice. 

I am also a lyric poet, and write and read longer forms. The longer poems feel (sometimes) like a story, or a re-creation of some particular place or person or relationship. There is metaphor, and extended metaphor, the lines just bubbling up and sizzling on the page. Haiku has a quietness about it; a shadow element. I am crazy for Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows. It is a masterpiece and although it was written in the thirties, it still holds true for a Japanese esthetic today. I am curious about everything having to do with Japanese style and design… from gardens, to architecture, to flower arrangement, and I am sure that this is imbued within my haiku writing style.



rectangle of light
janitor vacuums silently
in the night

– J.W. Hackett



RT: Haiku in Canada has an unusual structure (as the subtitle suggests): part memoir, part history, part poetry anthology, part roll call of Canadian haiku writers. The practice of gathering the biographies of contributing poets into an essay is shared by other haiku anthologies, such as Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years (eds. Kacian, Rowland and Burns, Norton, 2013) and The Haiku Anthology (van den Heuvel, Norton, 1999), but in your case the poems themselves and personal reminiscences are also rolled into the mix. You never know what will come next: a personal anecdote, a poet’s or writing group’s bio, a clutch of poems, an excerpt from an essay on the nature of haiku, etc.

In your foreword, you note that Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book, which itself roams mightily, helped inspire the book’s form. Could you talk a little about how you settled on the book’s final shape? Did you draw on other influences, beyond Shōnagon, in approaching the task?

TAC: This book began as a talk that I was invited to give at a Haiku North America conference in Seattle, Washington, in 2011. It was perhaps nine pages in length and it was received very well. A second delivery came when I was a keynote speaker at a Haiku Canada conference. For this talk I had prepared some extra notes around the Toronto scene since I was speaking at Glendon College at the University of Toronto. The paper kept growing. I was living in Ottawa at the time; I facilitated a haiku group called KaDo Ottawa and we met at the Japanese Embassy for our annual spring meetings. My friendship with Mr. Toshi Yonehara increased my interest in the history of haiku, and when I moved to the west coast in 2012, I realized that I was in a great place to do more research. I was new to Victoria and wanted to meet like-minded folks, so I taught Japanese literary forms at Royal Roads University, in their adult extension program. I met many poets who wanted to learn more about haiku; soon the classes turned into social gatherings and Haiku Arbutus was born (I still facilitate this group). 

It was through Haiku Arbutus that I met Dr. Susumu Tabata, a 93 year old survivor of the internment camps of the Slocan Valley in the interior of B.C. during World War II. It was such an honour and a privilege to meet him, and soon “Sus” was a regular at our meetings. Spritely, with a great sense of humour and a twinkle in his eye, he was beloved by all of us. My essay began to take on a new direction as I researched the haiku written in these camps during this dark chapter of Canadian history. Members of the Victoria Nikkei Cultural Society were also wonderful to help out. Many gave me resources that I would have probably never found on my own. I would take out the essay from time to time and add sections about groups (like mine) that were “starting up.” Now I had over a hundred pages and I began to think about a book.

The challenge now, was my writing “styles.” When I was referencing the historical facts, I needed historical accuracy, which created a certain tone. When I was writing about groups of poets, some who were close personal friends, the tone changed again. I was very uncertain about how to continue. I actually became quite despondent around the whole project and dropped it for about two years. I simply didn’t know how to mesh everything together. The title at this time was “A History of Haiku in Canada” and it sat deep within my computer.

And then one day, I was reading Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book, which is her observations of Heian court life, including essays, anecdotes, poems, opinions, interesting events at court, and her famous lists, 164 of them. Her writing was called “zuihitsu” or “assorted writing,” and I knew I had found a model. I picked up the project and began working again, and by Christmas 2019 I had the manuscript completed and submitted to Richard Olafsen at Ekstasis Editions.



spring thaw
the ball
on the front lawn

– Dr. Susumu Tabata



RT: It’s no coincidence that the other anthologies I noted above were edited by men, nor—I suspect—that your major influence in structuring the book was a woman. In many ways, Haiku in Canada feels like a corrective in a literary tradition that has historically appeared to be dominated by men. In addition to this book, in 2020 you also published the collection of essays Moonflowers: Pioneering Women Haiku Poets in Canada (catkin press, 2020)How did writing Moonflowers influence how you approached writing Haiku in Canada?

TAC: Writing Moonflowers was a project that began (again) in a much smaller way. I was interested in the lives of some of the female poets “who came before me” and the research was a labour of love. I wrote them over a time period of five or six years, submitting the essays to the Haiku Canada Review (first under the editorship of LeRoy Gorman, and later under Mike Montreuil). Some of the research material for Moonflowers became quite important for the history book. The books felt “completed” in the fall of 2019 and with the assistance of my wonderful copy editor, Philomene Kocher, in Kingston, we set out to polish both books and submit them to presses. It was a gargantuan task; I never could have completed all the work without her. But I was thrilled to have them out into the world.  

Completing the research for Moonflowers gave me a “deep dive” into the lives of our pioneering women poets. I wanted to bring that knowledge and energy to Haiku in Canada, although (because of space) in much shorter allotments. I think that the work for Moonflowers gave me a stronger appreciation for these women. That appreciation flowed into Haiku in Canada and helped me shape it in ways that wouldn’t have been possible before the research.



each lilac showing me
what I do not know
about lilacs

– Claudia Coutu Radmore



RT: Haiku in Canada profiles many women who have had a great impact on the writing of haiku, most of whom I was unaware of before reading the book. Could you tell us a little about two women in particular, Fukuda Chiyo-ni and Kaoru Ikeda, and how they ought to be remembered within the larger history of haiku?

TAC: I became aware of Chiyo-ni through the book by Patricia Donegan and Yoshi Ishibashi, Chiyo-ni: Woman Haiku Master (Tuttle Press, 1998). Chiyo-ni is one of Japan’s most celebrated female haiku poets. Her given name was not Chiyo-ni, but simply Chiyo (meaning “a thousand years”). At age fifty-two, she became a Buddhist nun and added the suffix ni (nun) to her name. She was born in 1703 in the small town of Matto in the Kaga region. A student of two of Basho’s disciples, she worked in an era when haiku was primarily a man’s domain. As a poet, calligrapher, and artist, she created poems of sensual beauty and human depth; her woman’s “point of view” is revered for its honesty.

Kaoru Ikeda, is a woman I “met” when I read her diary in Stone Voices: Wartime Writings of Japanese Canadian Issei by Keibo Oiwa (Vehicule Press, 1991). The diary records a life of cooking, gathering food, being surrounded by nature (she was interned in the Slocan Valley, between two mountains). Her writing reveals a way of collective living where friends and family members, young and old, gathered to exchange their knowledge, console one another, and put their feelings into traditional Japanese poetic forms. These haiku from Kaoru’s diary are perhaps some of the first examples of haiku (translated into English) to be found in Canada. 

Certainly Chiyo-ni has the broader sweep. Her poems have been translated into several languages; her influence is felt by many poets who study the form. Donegan and Ishibashi’s book pays a fine tribute to her, and since then, Montreal haiku poet, Marco Fraticelli has also written a book about her (composing fictional letters that Chiyo-ni might have written to a lover, juxtaposed to Chiyo’s own haiku, in a form called haibun). The book is titled A Thousand Years (catkin press, 2018). Her poems can be found on the internet and in small haiku collections. Kaoru Ikeda was not known as a “haiku poet”; she wrote haiku as a way to survive tremendous struggle and fear. She comes to life in Oiwa’s fine research. 



mountain life
gathering fallen wood
the right job for an old one

– Kaoru Ikeda
(trans. Keibo Oiwa)



RT: You’ve toured in grade schools extensively with the “Poets in the Schools” program, and you published Lighting the Global Lantern: A Teacher’s Guide for Writing Japanese Literary Forms (Wintergreen Studios Press, 2011). Many poets have bemoaned the scourge of the haiku-as-syllable-counting-lesson. How do you feel about the emphasis on 5-7-5 finger counting? More generally, what do you think our schools are doing well in the teaching of haiku? Where could there be improvement?

TAC: The emphasis on 5-7-5 syllable counting came as a result of a mistranslation by R. H. Blyth when he wrote “syllable” for “on,” which means “sound” in Japanese. Blyth was one of the first to translate Japanese haiku into English. Haiku scholars in English North America (beginning with William J. Higginson) have been “fighting the good fight” to change this misconception. It is the moment, not the syllables that are important (although most poets agree on not exceeding the seventeen syllable count). Students write wonderful haiku when they are taught by teachers who understand the form themselves. As a “poet in the school” for many years in Ontario, I always stressed that writing haiku was an activity for both students and teachers. 

As a judge for the JAL Foundation children’s haiku contest each year (which publishes haiku and artwork from students around the world) I find the haiku has broad ranges. Those that really grasp the form and write beautiful simple haiku are most likely taught by teachers who have investigated the scholarship. I think there is always room for improvement, and teaching haiku is a life skill. Students who really “connect” with the form will find that it becomes a lifelong passion, a way to survive, a way to celebrate and honour the great world we live in. 

I feel that there has never been a better time to teach these valuable lessons of haiku than right now, in these uncertain Covid-19 days. Young people (and older folks, too) are spending more and more time in nature. They are reflecting on inner thoughts. They are appreciating the small gifts of beauty all around them. What a great time to set that all down in this concise poetic form. This magic of the senses. 

The other day I was out walking; it happened to be the autumn equinox. As I walked a bus driver waved to me; I could see that he was headed in the direction of the local hospital. In my mind I simply noted it down: “a bus driver waves / en route to the hospital / autumn equinox” …and there it is. A moment of connection between me and a stranger. A stranger who waved. It was the autumn equinox. I will keep that moment with me always, in that short poem, composed as I walked along my path. This is what I would like teachers to teach. By living “the way of haikai” the writing becomes second nature (forgive the pun).



nothing
depends upon
this hyacinth blooming

– Ruby Spriggs



RT: You dedicate the book to your “haiku family in Canada and around the world,” and the tight-knit “family” of haiku writers is evident both in your anthology and in others. A name will appear in one context, then reappear again and again – at social gatherings, conferences, writing newsletter minutes, editing and publishing anthologies, etc. Everyone seems to know everyone! It got me thinking of haiku as the “poetry world of the poetry world” – just as the wider poetry community compensates for a lack of sales/audience by tightening its social bonds, the haiku community (a subset of the poetry community, if not a separate entity entirely) seems further removed and – perhaps because of that – even more bonded. Do you think there is truth to that? If haiku entered the mainstream – if it was consumed and distributed like novels and non-fiction – what do you think would be gained? What would be lost?

TAC: Yes, I think that the haiku community is a tightly knit community, almost a family. Our conferences are reunions. I think it is a subset of the poetry community, although there are some who write longer lyric poetry as well. I would like to see haiku enter the “mainstream” and I think, in some areas, it has. I don’t think it will ever be consumed and distributed like novels, but I think that anyone interested in the environment needs to pay attention to the environment. Needs to become a caretaker.  Haiku is a way of using the senses to be “alive” in the environment. And there are “urban haiku,” haiku not written about the moonlight and pines, but rather the rusted staples in the concert poster on the coffee shop bulletin board, or the tattoos on the waiter’s arm. There are ways (techniques) to compare images in a haiku, contrast them or associate them. Haiku can be composed by young school children and by eighty year olds, and everyone in between.  



end of summer—
in my son’s room
I try on his shoes

– Abigail Friedman



RT: Much of the activity of gathering and sharing haiku in Canada takes place in regional haiku groups. As you’ve mentioned, you founded two of the country’s largest (KaDo Ottawa and Haiku Arbutus Victoria Study Group). Could you explain for the uninitiated what happens at these gatherings? If someone lives in an area where there are no haiku groups, how would you suggest they go about connecting with other haiku poets, or starting a group themselves?

TAC: I can only speak about my own groups, KaDo Ottawa and now Haiku Arbutus (Victoria). We meet seasonally to exchange haiku, learn more about the form, listen to invited speakers, and occasionally participate in a kukai, a kind of anonymous workshop where poems are submitted for critique. Members of HA often tell me that this is a forum that is very appreciated. Poets are looking for feedback. Feedback in the haiku world sounds something like this: the kigo (seasonal reference) might not be clear, the space between images (kiriji) might not have an organic “flow”, a shorter-syllabled word might be a better choice, the language is too abstract (always the haiku poet is trying to find images to portray an emotion).

Often there is an invited guest who speaks to Haiku Arbutus on a specific theme. In the past, Marco Fraticelli, a Montreal haiku poet, read from two of his collections and gave a short talk on their origins; Ion Codrescu from Romania, an internationally recognized haiga artist, gave a talk on haiga (an image combined with a haiku); Michael Dylan Welch from Seattle gave a talk on the difference between haiku and short three lined poems. Often I will introduce a poet to the group, by giving examples of poems and short commentaries; sometimes there is a writing workshop connected to the presentations. Because I am a paper artist, I have also given workshops on how to use haiku in small books, in collages, in paper windchimes.

Starting a haiku group begins with an intention. Usually to bring like-minded people together. Even starting with just two or three people is a beginning. There are online resources for “beginning haiku poets”. An excellent resource can be found on the site of the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival. There is a teacher’s page, plus an array of excellent poems that have won the haiku contest sponsored by the festival each year. 

Joining Haiku Canada is also a way to find connection with other poets across the country. Haiku Canada publishes the Haiku Canada Review twice a year, containing (again) excellent poems, linked verses, haibun, reviews, and addresses of haiku journals around the world that are looking for submissions. They also publish broadsheets of members’ work. It is a fine organization; its colourful history is a big part of Haiku in Canada: History, Poetry, Memoir.



fifty autumns
is it the same wild goose
reminding me?

– Luce Pelletier



RT: It only feels right to end, as we began, with a haiku. What’s one haiku, written by someone else, that you find yourself returning to most often? Why do you think you’re drawn to it?

TAC: I would like to close with Chiyo-ni’s haiku about moonflowers. When we know that the moonflower only opens at night, we understand a profound connection between the sensuous female body and the fragile white flower shaped like the moon. In that beautiful concision of language and juxtaposition we are held (for a moment) in the mystical now:



moonflowers:
a woman’s skin
as she disrobes

– Chiyo-ni
(trans. Marco Fraticelli)


---

Explore the history of haiku in Canada at your local bookstore, or via the Ekstasis Editions website or, I suppose, from Amazon.

12/10/2020

Poetry 1 - My New Online Poetry Course with SFU Creative Writing

 

If you're interested in learning more about poetry while you're stuck at home this winter, my online, asynchronous "Introduction to Poetry" course with SFU Creative Writing has been expanded and rebranded as "Poetry 1", the first of three poetry courses students can move through within the program. ("Poetry 2", taught by Kevin Spenst, will be offered in April.)
Poetry 1 is almost twice as big as its predecessor. Over ten weeks, we'll explore traditional poetic forms and the secrets that have made them last, which you can apply to your poetry and prose: rhyme, metre, repetition, metaphor, associative movement, enjambment, revision, performance - you name it!
This is an intensive course (you'll read a whole bunch, complete writing exercises, engage in class discussions, and workshop one another's writing), but it's designed to be open to anyone - no experience necessary. And because the course is online and asynchronous, anyone in the world can join in on the fun, too (I've had students from South Korea, Japan, the UK, and more!).
The Winter offering starts on January 20th, and is already filling up. I'd love to work with you, so if you're interested, register soon!

12/07/2020

Old Stories Made New: An Interview with David Ly


Boy 
Surrounded by white wolves,
I plunge a hand into the alpha’s mouth

and rip out its tongue.
The rest scatter in whimpers.

It’s not long before I begin to tear at myself
from fear of what I’m becoming,

crawl into the forest to hide
under a blanket of shimmering, silver moths.

(Palimpsest Press, 2020).
Reprinted with permission.
---



David Ly is the author of the poetry collection Mythical Man (Anstruther Books, 2020) and the chapbook Stubble Burn (Anstruther Press, 2018). His poetry has appeared in PRISM internationalArc Poetry Magazine, The /temz/ Review, carte blanche, and elsewhere. He is the Poetry Editor of This Magazine and sits on the Editorial Collective of Anstruther Press.

---


Rob Taylor: I love your poem “Boy”, especially its leaps and surprises from couplet to couplet. Could you talk about the poem: how its central images came to you, and how you got it into its final physical shape?

David Ly: The images in “Boy” are probably among the strongest that I’ve come up with. I don’t know when and how they came to me, but I think near the beginning of writing poems for this book, an image of a boy hiding under moths just rooted in my mind (and this was even before we titled the book). I almost became obsessive over him. Who is he? Why is he hiding? I knew something had happened to him and he was scared, and certainly angry. Writing this short poem was a way of me trying to flesh out this character, almost (re)introduce myself to him. Even after finishing it, I still think about him and continue to flesh him out as a character in more of my writing. There is something special to me about this little boy and I hope I can keep writing about him. 

As for the poem’s final physical shape, I just looked back in my editing records of this poem, and it hasn’t really changed much from its initial draft! I think the reason for this was that because it was such a vivid image for me, I just wrote it out with no fancy formatting in order to get the character out before me in a way that was easy for me to see and understand. It is such a clear image for me, I probably wanted the formatting to present the poem in a very easy way for people to read.

RT: Mythical Man is divided into four sections, each of which contains one of four poems entitled “Mythical Man,” which serve to tether the book together. The book is also filled with “mythical men,” from the moth boy to mermen to marble statues to the mythological transformation that takes place in the book’s closing lines. At what point in the development of the book did “mythical man” become its unifying theme? Did the title poems bring forward the theme, or did the theme lead to the poems, or both?  

DL: I came up with the title “Mythical Man” about halfway through editing the poems with Jim. I remember messaging him at like 5 AM with just “MYTHICAL MAN” and we both instantly agreed that was it. Prior to that, we knew the book was going to be in multiple parts, so when the title came to me, it just made sense to have different kinds of “mythical men” throughout the book. The title sort of unified everything I was coming up with. I knew I was really indulging my imagination writing these poems about identity, belonging, etc., and in a weird sort of way, titling it with the word “mythical” gave me permission to imagine more, make-believe more that, in a way, spoke to very real topics. The title poems did feel like they furthered the theme. They pushed my writing to keep unpacking ideas of manhood, masculinity, identity, etc. Especially “Mythical Man II.” That one I am very surprised we included in the book. It’s this small poem that somehow scares me (still). And I don’t like reading it aloud for readings and I probably won’t ever!

I did reach a block after titling the book, though. I remember putting myself in the “mythical” box too much and forcing myself to create poems that so obviously spoke to the theme(s). But I think I caught myself early with this and then started putting less pressure on myself. Writing started to feel more natural and fun again, which was when I wrote poems like “Walking Together at the End of the World” that ends the book with those fun closing lines.

RT: It’s a tricky balance—gathering a book around certain themes without programmatically writing towards them—but I think you managed it well.

One such theme in the book is the intersection of homophobia and anti-Asian racism: both moments in which the two converge in our broader culture (i.e. daily life), and more intimate moments in which one bigotry undermines the safety of a world that’s free from the other (racism in queer spaces, homophobia in Asian spaces). In other words, these poems perpetually challenge the idea of various spaces being “safe.” 

DL: Exactly! The book challenges ideas of what the narrator thinks is safe. The queer community (online and off) is lauded for being a “safe space,” which isn’t actually true: There are pockets of danger with different forms of discrimination. There are also moments of intimacy where it should feel safe, and it’s not. It’s one of the reasons why I am so happy with the cover, because the snake really gives this sense of danger and even though it evokes some curiosity, you’re still a bit weary. After reading this book, I think about safety in regards to maybe how guarded I am, and maybe how it makes me a bit too uptight?

RT: I’m glad you mentioned the cover! In your own interviews you conduct with others, you like to ask other poets about their book covers (to Tess Liem, you said “I feel like not enough interviews cover (hehe) a book’s look.”) And you got to it here before I could even bring it up. Was the cover always going to be a snake?

DL: I’ve always had a fascination with animals, especially reptiles and marine life, and that sort of imagery found its way into my poems so I am very grateful that I got to draw upon it for cover ideas and suggestions. From the beginning, I knew I wanted a snake for the cover. It just made sense to me to have a snake convey the sexiness of the poems, how they peel back layers on an identity. There is also just something about snakes, to me, that is enticing. But in this, like, weird dangerous way, that’s not dangerous enough to warrant complete fear.

RT: You were lucky to be able to take that vision to Kate Hargreaves, who’s designed so many striking book covers.

DL: Kate did an excellent job with the cover. Working with her made the experience so great. The finished cover is pretty much what she came up with, and all I asked for were different colouring options. When I saw the words “Mythical Man” in pink, I knew that was it. It looked so cool set against that emerald-y teal. I think, overall, the cover intensifies the reading experience of the book. Like I said, there is something about snakes that is enticing and a bit symbolic of sexiness. Paired with the title referencing “myth,” the cover also plays with the idea of the reptilian skin being something else besides a snake as well, something magical. I think it is a perfect preface to what the book holds. Even the end pages of the book are this translucent, milky paper, which I wanted because to me it resembled shed snakeskin. Basically, book design to me is very important to the reading experience!

RT: When it comes to considering a reader’s experience, some of your poems seem directed to particular audiences. For instance, you repeat “this poem is not exotic / this poem is not exotic” three times in the poem “Nice to Meet You.” That feels like it must be aimed at someone “outside” your context, likely straight and/or white. Did you have a particular reader in mind in writing Mythical Man, and if so did that reader change from poem to poem? 

DL: There are many poems in Mythical Man that can be read like they’re aimed at a certain someone “outside” my context, but I would hope they aren’t all read like that. Instead, I hope they’re seen as more of a commentary on what me, a person of colour, experiences, especially from white people (gay or straight). That said, I think the reader I had in mind for this book was just someone who wasn’t me! I want someone to read these poems and see what it is sometimes like for a queer person of colour to navigate the world.

RT: Do you think it’s possible to write about race and sexuality in a way that speaks to everyone across one or both of those divides? Is that even desirable?

DL: I think it is definitely possible to write about race and sexuality in a way that speaks to everyone. But I wouldn’t say I “desire” this—it’s more of a hope and experience where I just tell myself I do the best I can to capture how I experience my race and sexuality and convey this to readers. At the end of the day, we are all human and even though it’s hard, why shouldn’t it be possible for us to understand someone who is of another race or sexuality? I think we all just want to feel like we belong and are heard!

RT: That sounds right to me, that you don’t “try” to speak to everyone, but are still hopeful that your story might reach everyone. Your poems certainly are reaching people. Speaking of points of connection, a number of the poems in Mythical Man involve, or take place on, dating apps (two of the poems in Mythical Man contain quotes from Grindr). Did it feel at all strange or anachronistic to write about a digital space in a print book? Does writing in a more “traditional” way about a very modern form of communication allow you a different perspective on it? Do I sound one-hundred years old for even wondering over these questions?

DL: You only sound roughly 78 for even wondering over these questions. It definitely did not feel anachronistic to write about digital spaces in a print book because I write from my experiences and being who I am, the digital space(s) where I exist are just an integral part of my existence whether I like it or not, but I also am very much a print book reader. So putting the two together wasn’t strange at all. I do feel it strange that people find it a talking point that my poems are drawn from things like dating apps and other digital things. It’s just the world I/we exist in! So it feels right and comfortable to write about them in my poems. 

I don’t know if writing about modern forms of communication in a more “traditional” way gives me a different perspective on it. If anything, writing poetry about digital spaces and how we exist in them makes me slow my thinking down more and reflect more on how I (and others) exist in places like Twitter, Instagram, Grindr, etc. And I think that slow-thinking about this allows me to write sharper poems.

RT: I’m sorry I’m so old, David… 

Your debut chapbook, Stubble Burn, was published only two years ago (when I was 76!), and by the same publisher as Mythical Man: Jim Johnstone (Jim runs both Anstruther Press and Palimpsest Press’ Anstruther Books imprint). It was surprising to me, then, to see how different the two are. Though both books speak to similar themes, a number of poems in the chapbook don’t appear in the book, the sequencing of the two is very different, and even the book’s “cover animal” has transformed from beetle to snake! Could you talk about the mix of continuity and change that took you from Stubble Burn to Mythical Man? How did that particular process influence the final product of the new book?

DL: Thank you for picking up on how different the two collections are! It makes me happy to hear that, because I worked hard with Jim to make sure that Mythical Man was different, making it feel like an expansion of the world and themes I dove into with Stubble Burn

It’s funny, “transformation” is something readers pick up on and it’s something I wasn’t quite going for, but it’s neat to see that people find it in the work. I think this is maybe because I wasn’t the person writing Stubble Burn as I was when putting together Mythical Man. The poems are all really drawn from my experiences, so it makes sense that there is a sense of transformation. The beetle had to turn into a snake! If allowed, and if things go well in my writing, I have ideas on what the animal for my next collection could be. 

Including some Stubble Burn poems (“Stubble Burn,” “For the No Rice, No Spice Kinda Guy,” for example) in Mythical Man was a fun way to call back to my earlier work, I guess, to show the breadth of what has happened since then. In the end, including old work with new work produced a collection that I think sincerely spoke to the theme of myths and identity. It called back to what I started with, then showed what I’ve created since. What are myths, if not just old stories that are told with some details added here and there to create something new?

---

Dive into David Ly's new myths at your local bookstore, or via the Palimpsest Press website or, I suppose, from Amazon.

12/02/2020

images reflecting intuitions

[Zen] is concerned only with life, not with words about life. It is for this reason that the Zen masters, when they were confronted with such questions as 'What is Zen?", invariably turned either to some nonverbal answers (such as hitting the questioner over the head), or gave such puzzling replies as:

"Three pounds of flax"
"The cypress tree in the courtyard"
"Three meals a day and a good night's sleep"

These apparently meaningless sayings have nevertheless two things in common: 1. Refusal to answer the question in the terms in which it was posed (i.e. in intellectual terms); 2. Pointing instead to something perfectly plain and ordinary, some everyday thing or event in nature, thereby forcing the questioner's mind from the abstract to the concrete and from the intellectual to the actual.

And this is exactly how the masters of haiku handled questions about haiku. When asked what kind of training was necessary to become a poet, one master said: "The crescent moon over the moor. " And when Onitsura was asked about the essence of haiku, he replied: "A camellia tree is in bloom in the garden. "

From all this we may draw our first conclusion about haiku: unlike most other types of poetry, haiku is not concerned with expressing Truth or Beauty or any other type of idea, concept or symbol; it has no deep or esoteric meaning; it deals entirely with the here and now, with nature, with intuition arising from immediate sense experience, with the ordinary sights and sounds of this world. D.T. Suzuki has expressed this as follows: "A haiku does not express ideas, but puts forward images reflecting intuitions.”

The problem for the Western reader, therefore, is not to find the hidden meaning, the "symbolic significance' of a haiku, for there is none, but to reconvert the images of a haiku into his own intuitions. And the answer to that lies in the art of reading haiku. A haiku is not meant to be read like a longer poem. It is more of an object for contemplation. First we must empty our minds of all preconceived ideas and re-experience what the poet saw or heard or felt; we must allow the images to touch us, we must enter, for example, the stillness of the old pond, see/hear/feel the sudden leap of the frog, and allow the ripples to fade out slowly in our mind. Only if we thus put ourselves in the poet's place, only if we experience the images directly and without intellectualization, only then—if the haiku is a good one—will it achieve its effect, evoking moods and memories, echoes and ripples of associations, playing on the mind as though it were an instrument where all the sympathetic strings resonate when a single note is struck. And the totality of that experience is the 'meaning' of a haiku.

In summary, a haiku is more than a ‘form’ of poetry. The same spirit pervades the paintings of Sesshu, the tea ceremony of Rikyu and the haiku of Bashô. A haiku is thus a manifestation of Zen and hence the expression of a particular state of consciousness: "Each true haiku is a swift record in words of one moment of 'satori', of the sudden flash of Enlightenment" (Harold Stewart). Each haiku is like the reply of a Zen master to a beginner's question about the meaning of life. And the answers will be seen to lie not in the ninth circle of heaven, nor on the lips of preachers and prophets, but scattered all around us, in myriads of forms, in the falling of a leaf no less than in the sting of a gnat, in the sound of a frog no less than in the song of a nightingale and whether we chart a rocket to the moon or sit quietly in our garden with Bashô, the answers are the same... the answers are everywhere... listen:

Old pond:
frog jump-in
water-sound


- Eric W. Amann, from his pamphlet The Wordless Poem: A Study of Zen in Haiku (Haiku Publications, 1969). The full pamphlet has been scanned and uploaded by The Haiku Foundation, and can be downloaded here.

I originally came upon this quote in Haiku in Canada: History, Poetry, Memoir by Terry Ann Carter (Ekstasis Editions, 2020).