a subjectivity perceiving another subjectivity (or, "there's something fantastic about young people in their underwear") - "Hungry" by Daniel Karasik

Old Haunt, Rebuilt - Daniel Karasik

On most Tuesdays we eat shitake maki
at New Gen, where our miso soup is free.
(Or “you-so” soup. You know.) Obviously
this is, as habits go, not all that wacky,
safer than heroin, though too much saki 
will rout you just the same as MSG.
I’ve dined at this place since I was a wee
lad of fifteen. Heartsick. In truth, a lackey,
even so young, to that narcotic mist
nostalgia, always lordly, rides cloaked in. 
The place burned down while I was traveling 
in Africa. An old friend whom I missed
like crazy e-mailed me. How to begin 
to tell you this. Our youth’s unraveling. 

from Hungry (Cormorant Books, 2013).
Originally published in The Fiddlehead.
Reprinted with permission.

Sometimes the Canadian poetry world is small. Ok, it is consistently, alarmingly, smotheringly small. But when your book gets picked up by an editor (Robyn Sarah, Cormorant Books' poetry editor) and she mentions that she knows another young, male Canadian poet who's traveled in and written about Ghana, and that in fact his book is slated to come out with the same publisher a couple years from now, well, the whole damn world seems small.

When I subsequently traveled out East for launches of The Other Side of Ourselves I had the opportunity to briefly meet Daniel and find out just how much we held in common, and also where we parted. While I was feeling nice and accomplished for having my first book published at 27, Daniel, at 24, was already an established playwright and budding poet and fiction writer. Now, at 26, he has three books to his name, two collections of plays and Hungry, his new book of poetry from Cormorant. Oh, and he's won the CBC Short Story Prize and The Malahat Review 's Jack Hodgins Founders' Award for Fiction. Nauseating, I know. And he has to go and be a thoughtful, generous, all-around good guy to boot.

Hungry features a few poems from Ghana (two of which were previously published on One Ghana, One Voice and can be read here), but most focus on themes one might suspect from an author who wrote most of his book in the first half of his 20s - youth, maturation, alienation, new technology and its relationship to all of the above. And death, of course, and the fear of it. And the heart, always, which would make Jack Gilbert proud.

Daniel is currently living in London (the real one - sorry, Ontario), but he's flying back to Canada for the Cormorant Poetry Super Launch this Thursday in Toronto (sorry, non-Ontario). The details:

Cormorant Poetry Super Launch

Thursday, June 20, 2013, 6-8 PM
Pauper's Pub Lounge
539 Bloor St. West, Toronto

Featuring readings from new books by:
Marilyn Gear Pilling (The Bee Garden)
Jack Hannan (a rhythm to stand beside)
Amanda Jernigan (All the Daylight Hours)
Daniel Karasik (Hungry)

Free (but maybe buy some books?)

In preparation for the launch, Daniel and I engaged in a trans-Atlantic, trans-continental chat (oh, Internet - you so crazy!) about his new book, writing all those genres, exploring our problems through poetry and, yes, young people in their underwear. Go ahead and skip to that part now - I know you're going to anyway, so I might as well give you my blessing.

Regardless of how you read the article, I hope you enjoy it:

Daniel Karasik, clothed (and wearing a hat, even).
What's with all my interviews with Daniels involving (potential) partial nudity?

Rob: "Old Haunt, Rebuilt" reminds me very much of Don Coles' "Sampling from a Dialogue". In both cases the transformation (or collapse) of the poem's form underscores, and enacts, the transformation described in the poem itself. Many of the poems in Hungry function along these lines, with form carrying or enabling a good deal of the poems' meaning. How did you determine to use traditional forms (sonnets, villanelles, etc.) for some poems, and not others? Do you have particular themes that call out to you for a "formal" treatment?

Daniel: I confess I don't know that Don Coles poem; will have to check it out. Robyn Sarah, who edited Hungry, is a great fan of his work, I think -- she edited The Essential Don Coles for The Porcupine's Quill -- so it's interesting to hear that you see correspondences between his stuff and mine: the continuum of Robyn's taste!

I'm evading your question. I guess the honest answer is that Hungry represents nearly a decade of work, and at the beginning of that decade I was almost completely innocent of poetic form and at the end of it I was much less so, to the point where I felt quite lost writing a poem that had no formal underpinnings. And also, come to think of it, I'm not just evading your question when I mention Robyn (though I was definitely also evading your question): she was the reason I started writing sonnets. She urged me to try. She sensed I'd grown comfortable and complacent in my prosody, and she was right. I needed to stretch my range. Part of the reason I wasn't drawn to formalist poetry early on is that none of my idols were working that way, or seemed to be. But even that impression had more to do with my ignorance than the poets I looked up to: Rilke, whom I venerated and whose breath is mixed with mine in some of my earlier poems, wrote beautifully rhymed and measured German, but I was reading him in elegant, formally free translations by Edward Snow.

As for the logic behind the mix of formal and free verse in Hungry, it's not about theme, I don't think. Music precedes theme when I conceive a poem, and some poems happen to arrive like cello suites and some like jazz. That metaphor is fuzzy, but so is the distinction it points towards. I'm not really a formalist. I can't do what the amazing young poet Amanda Jernigan does in traditional forms, for instance. I cheat. The sonnets in Hungry are more or less "correct," but all the other formal poems are impish in their metrics and rhymes. When we were doing final edits on "Elevator Doors," the pseudo-villanelle that's one of my favourite poems in the collection, Robyn, with some displeasure, was like: you know you've entirely evaded the requirements of the villanelle here, right? And I was like, yep.

Rob: Yes, evading specific questions or requirement does seem to be your specialty, in interviews as well as poems... but I like the answer you got to eventually (and "Elevator Doors", for that matter) so I'll forgive you.

Many of the poems in Hungry are narrative driven. Obviously, as a playwright and fiction writer, narrative plays a big role in your writing in general. With so many potential outlets for your narratives, can you discern why some narratives become poems, some plays, and some fiction?

Daniel: Good question, hard question. This division often feels arbitrary to me in practice, but when I step back I can see some patterns. When I start a poem, I'm not usually thinking in narrative terms. The language unfolds into narrative, but most of the time it stems from an image or sensation or craving. As can a story or a play. But I think with fiction and drama I'm more often drawn in by a voice, or by a theme or question. When I've tried to write poems "about" a theme or question, when I've consciously and discursively made a topic my starting point, usually I've written poems without much lift. Even a poem in Hungry that seems (and, provisionally, is) polemical, like "Important," grew more out of a tonal quality, a rhetorically loaded music, than an impulse towards making an argument. Likewise with those poems that seem to tell a story, like "The Long Distance Runner Appears at Last."

Rob: Following on that, have you ever had a story that popped up in multiple genres? If so, was the story consistent in its nature and telling? If not, how did it transform between forms?

Daniel: This has never happened to me, as far as I can remember. Though I'm in the midst of trying to take an idea I conceived as a TV pilot and rewrite it as a play. In that case, the transformation (attempt) has come about because I think the heart of the idea, its muscle and complexity, is contained in what was previously the first scene of the pilot -- and while television requires you to elaborate a whole world, realistically rendered, the theatre allows me to stay in that one scene and flesh it out, explode it. Also, the play/pilot is all about illicit sexuality, and there's something fantastic about young people in their underwear talking about sex in front of an audience that is physically in the same room with them. I think that's worth switching forms for.

Oh, and I've written a play in verse! Unmetred, unrhymed, hyper-naturalistic in its register. I haven't replicated that play in multiple genres, but it is a hybrid. It's a literary document and a very spare road map to a theatrical experience. But that isn't such a contradiction for me. I think theatre writing can and should be conceived as literature.

Rob: Continuing with this idea of genre-blurring, I often see a certain type of poetry described derisively as "prose with line breaks". As a writer of both prose and poetry, I'm curious about your take on this. Do you write "prose with line breaks" sometimes? Do you see anything wrong with that?

Daniel: Sure, I've written prose with line breaks. And I've written prose without line breaks. And sometimes they've both been poetry. I'm relatively comfortable working in traditional poetic forms, but I never kid myself that the presence of a few iambic feet ensures poetry. Not even the presence of a poet who's sometimes written poetry ensures poetry. Poetry is the light in the box, not the wood or the manner of the hewing. Look at somebody like Jack Gilbert. My favourite poet of the last century, give or take, the poet who's mattered most to me in recent years. He disclaimed all interest in form. Very puritanically, a bit grinchily maybe: all those damn kids these days are interested in is technique, he'd say, and it's empty. And so on. But you look at his verse and it's the most elegant chopped prose you're going to find. The lines don't scan, but they breathe. The line breaks are fertile, sometimes febrile, almost always right. There's more fucking poetry in his astonishing, simple, prosaic "Michiko Dead" than in twenty pages of Hopkins. With all due respect to Hopkins.

Rob: Goodness, yes - "Michiko Dead" is an incredible poem. Speaking of Gilbert, a poem in tribute to him, "Jack Gilbert", is included in Hungry. This was presumably written after his death and slipped into the book after it had been accepted. Could you speak a bit about the role Gilbert's writing and life have played in your own writing and life? How did you take his passing (he asks innocently, probing the poem for autobiography)?

Daniel: That poem was written hours after his death. I was a mess. I just kept crying. It's a very "emo" poem, that one, all about a guy crying and why he's crying, and that was me. I'd never had that kind of reaction to the death of a literary figure before, a writer I'd never met. I elegized him right away. It was as animal an act as writing a poem has ever been for me. I was sitting in a cabin in the middle of the woods at the Banff Centre, just me and the woods and luxury and grief, and I wrote that poem and sent it almost immediately to Robyn Sarah and to my ex-girlfriend with whom I'd split just weeks before, in both cases mainly out of love, as an act of vulnerability and love. And I thought maybe Robyn would find it sentimental and dislike it, but she liked it and it snuck into the book about a week before she delivered the final edited manuscript to Cormorant.

Gilbert's writing is pretty much the closest thing to wisdom literature I've encountered in contemporary letters. Particularly the Gilbert of The Great Fires, his masterpiece. The tension between desire and renunciation, solitude and communion -- he got it. And yet he's not me, and I know that. He is not urban, as I am, not a social creature, not desirous in the specific ways and with the peculiar intensities that I embody, by which I understand myself. He's completely divorced from the marketplace, its energy. And I have a relationship to the marketplace. An ambivalent one, sure, but I have a relationship to that energy. I'm not apolitical in the way that Gilbert was; and I think he was quite apolitical. He didn't want children, which is a deeply apolitical (i.e. political) position to take. Community, conventionally understood, meant little to him. He was a solitary spirit in a way I can never be. Which might be partly because I'm Jewish. I mean that half-seriously. There's a strain in Gilbert that seems to me to trace a direct line from Christian mysticism. His relationship to sexuality seems to me profoundly Christian. ("We must / eat through the wildness of her sweet body already / in our bed to reach the body within that body." Right?) And mine, for better or worse, isn't.

Rob: Jeez, I'm feeling a lot of pressure re: my Christian sexuality right now. Thanks, Jack!

Speaking of such things, a lot of "tags" could be attached to this book for marketing and critical (and general blathering) purposes. "Jewish", as you've mentioned, and also "Canadian", "Young" (or... ugh... "Millennial"), "Male", and, for a few poems, "White Guy in Africa". Do you welcome any/all of these tags? Do you think any of them in particular (or perhaps one I've missed) help shaped the book in a noteworthy way?

Daniel: I welcome all of them and inhabit none of them fully. Which seems okay. I've felt old since I was seventeen, and Jewish mostly when watching Woody Allen, and male... let's not even get started on that one. I do think all those facets of my identity have shaped the book. The book's about identity as much as anything (said every author ever), so, to my mind, more than it's about inhabiting those roles, it's aboutit's about a consciousness trying to position itself in relation to those roles. That sounds like a horribly pedantic gloss, but I think it's quite true. I think the poems testify to a consciousness of indeterminate spiritual affiliation and age and gender trying to understand why it has to be Jewish and young and... well, not so much be male, but perform maleness. I get so sick of performing maleness. Not that I want to be a woman, or more feminine in any outward way. But every time I find myself in some archetypally gendered mating dance with a woman, at which times my gender is reified in an extremely disconcerting way, I find myself asking: who am I? What is this? Why, in 2013, must I still be, as a man, the active agent here? And I mean those questions only half rhetorically. I often really can't tell where convention stops and essence or biology begins. And I think a lot of the poems in Hungry witness a consciousness trying to sort out that kind of ambiguity. And maybe have a good time doing it.

Rob: In an interview I conducted with you for One Ghana, One Voice back in 2011, you said "Some of my more recent poetry, and I think some of my better poems among my older poetry, has been a kind of a searching, an unraveling in poetic terms of an existential or otherwise urgent problem." This seems very evident in the final product of Hungry. Does that statement still hold true for the poems you are writing now? Can you point to a couple poems in the book, maybe a recent one and one of the "better, older" ones, that come to your mind as unraveling an urgent problem?

Daniel: I'm happy you find that searching quality in the book. It's a quality that I certainly hope would still be in my new poems, were I writing any new poems. I haven't abandoned poetry for good; it remains true that many (most?) of the writers who matter to me are poets. But I'm in a fallow period, busying myself with fiction and drama instead. Robyn Sarah says this often happens to her for two years after she publishes a book, so I suppose I'm in good company. In fact, maybe it's that factoid about Robyn that's dammed my output: I'm subconsciously paying homage to my editor.

I think "Other People," "Next To Nothing," and "Dazzled" -- relatively recent poems -- are all trying to work out something urgent, in their different ways. "Next to Nothing" is a sort of "pure" example of this; with its intentionally very flat affect, it drills into a kernel of tragedy, trying to reason in simple terms towards an acceptance of the horribly irrational, the simply horrible. And it fails. I hope the poem doesn't fail, but the attempt to which the poem is witness fails. It succeeds only in that it issues in a poem. Which is a sort of consolation. A flower of failure.

"Old Men Running" is an older poem that does more or less the same thing. Less obviously, maybe, since its timbre is lighter, wittier.

Rob: Yes, "Next to Nothing" and "Old Men Running" would have been near the top of my list, as well. Both great poems, working their way through similar problems in their own peculiar ways.

This idea of a poem as a searching or working through of an urgent problem is an interesting one, and one that is probably held by many writers. I wonder, though, where the reader fits into that equation. You continue in that 2011 interview to say "So I guess part of what I hope to accomplish is to share that search, crafted in such a way that it has resonance for others." So the "others", the readers, are considered, but at what point in the writing process do you start considering them? When you go to share the poem? When you go to craft it? Is the searching you speak of a solitary searching, and if so, when/how do you change its course and send it out towards the reader?

Daniel: I consider the readers from the very beginning, but in a deeply narcissistic/solipsistic way whereby I imagine that they're all exactly like me. They share my tastes, my instincts, my reservations, my predilections, my fears. Or at least they're very, very sympathetic to them. They're discerning in the way and to the extent that I am, no more or less. Certain among them, the real-life "them" -- editors, friends -- may know me or see me better than I know or see myself at a given moment, but if they're to be useful to me as critics, they're still essentially like me. To the extent that they're essentially not like me, I have no relationship to them. They simply won't like the work. I made peace a long time ago with the inevitable subjectivity of poetry/art as an enterprise. I don't believe there's a Platonic form of the poem, of a given poem. There's just a subjectivity perceiving another subjectivity and either assenting to it -- loving it -- or finding it profoundly uninteresting or wanting to kill it. And all of those reactions are, I think, okay. The important thing is that craft elevate the poem to its highest fulfillment in the eyes of those who want to, need to love it. The self-selecting lovers, of whom the poet is one. Because they're the only people who are ever going to give a shit about it, anyway.

If you live in Toronto, you can grab a copy of Hungry at the Cormorant Poetry Super Launch. If you experience the singular joy of living somewhere other than Toronto, you can buy a copy of Daniel Karasik's Hungry from your local bookstore, or from Amazon. I suspect you will also be able to pick up a copy on opening night of Daniel's young-people-underwear-sex-talk play, which I'm sure none of us are going to miss.

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