5/16/2022

statements of the high priests

I think that if an author believes in the value of what he has to say through his work, he must be very persistent and strong in that belief, and he must be 'willing to stand the rain.' There is a danger/temptation to be too much influenced by critical trends or the statements of those who worship at the altars of different religions - especially if they are considered the high priests of their time. It is good to remember that Henry James once dismissed the Dorset writer as 'poor little Thomas Hardy' and that Virginia Woolf said that the writings of Joyce reminded her of a young undergraduate scratching his pimples.

 

- Alistair MacLeod, from his "Note on Writing" essay for Event Magazine (Spring 1989), as collected in 50 Years of Event Magazine: Collected Notes on Writing.

5/09/2022

how far our sense of poetry has strayed

In a 1967 essay, poet Howard Nemerov anticipated that, if people grew to love poems written by computers, it wouldn’t be because “the machine had imitated the subtlety of the mind, but that the mind had simplified (and brutalized) itself in obeisance to its idol the machine.” That we struggle to recognize machine verse means our expectations for the human stuff are lower now. In his 2010 book You Are Not a Gadget, Jaron Lanier reminds us that the Turing test “cuts both ways.” For AI to pass, humans have to fail. We are judged as much as the machine. And what the test exposes is how far our sense of poetry has strayed, how ready we are to be persuaded, to credit anything as genius. As machine poetry spreads, it will create a tolerance for things bots can do. AI will heighten, and push us to honour, poetry as a “construct,” a system of vocabularies, a remote-controlled theatricality. We may end up cherishing the superficial and arbitrary effects most feasible for algorithms, becoming bored with interiority. Writing will appear less risky, less troublesome. We will be free of the expectation actually to understand it. We will also be free of its judgment on us—the demand that, as Rilke put it, “you must change your life.” Maybe we will come to prize poetry that doesn’t have any human reality in it. We will value deepfaked emotions, seeing them as better. Hand-woven stanzas will become vintage objets d’art: artisanal goods peddled on Etsy-like storefronts in the metaverse.

This isn’t a debate about whether AI can write poetry. It’s a debate about how much longer it will matter that humans can.

- Carmine Starnino, from his essay "Robots Are Writing Poetry, and Many People Can’t Tell the Difference" in The Walrus. You can read the whole thing here.

5/02/2022

that just means I'm not joking

Pearl Pirie: Does writing poetry remind you to keep perspective with humour or does humour remind you what you could share in a poem?

Rae Armantrout: The humor in the poems seems like an integral part of them–, or some of them anyway. I think you’re right to talk about perspective. Sometimes it’s a sudden change in perspective that seems comical—the way that, if you take the long view, the problems and issues of the day can seem ridiculous. Or the humor can be triggered by a change in who’s looking at something—what does it look like to another person or to a bird, for that matter. Surprise makes people laugh because it makes them a bit uncomfortable. My poems often have what gets called dark humor. I guess that just means I’m not joking. As every comedian knows, if you just come out and say what people know but don’t want to know, that’s “funny.”

 - Rae Armantrout, in "mini-Interview" with Pearl Pirie over on Pearl's blog. You can read the whole thing here.

4/28/2022

the very skills necessary for our everyday lives as citizens

I don't know why other people choose to work in literary writing and publishing, but my motivation for publishing literary works, and doing it with the uncommon care that I do, is aligned with my life-long interest in journalism. I think that publishing literature is an equally valuable tool, if more indirect and lyrical, than news reporting if your desire is to produce work that informs, equips, and supports the community. It is a tool that might ultimately penetrate more deeply and whose impact might be felt over a longer period, longer than a news cycle. It is a tool that fosters the discussion of more nuanced and complex ideas. I publish literary books because I think that they help the community to understand what is happening to it, and through it, and provide a means for articulating what it is like to be alive, here, in this place, in this time.

I also value the way that literature fosters robust thinking. Surely the reader who can wield metaphoric language, parse a complex phrase, or re-expand the compacted imagery of a work of fiction into a valid and complex universe in their mind is also likely to be someone who can wield robust arguments against injustice, parse environmental reviews or development regulations, or imagine a way forward for a community faced with difficult decisions. The skills that literature nurtures and exercises are the very skills necessary for our everyday lives as citizens. Without the robust kind of thinking and communication that a healthy literary culture enables, the coherence of the human world suffers, and with it, our ability to understand our relationship with the world at large.

-  Gaspereau Press publisher Andrew Steeves, from his essay "Notes on Publishing Literary Books" in Resonance: Essay on the Craft and Life of Writing (Anvil Press, 2022). 

4/25/2022

the spontaneous and unteachable nature of poetry

There's this idea that the only requirement for being a poet is having strong thoughts and feelings, that poetry flows perfectly from one's soul - it can't be improved or taught, and it is independent of history or the world. I on't know where this idea comes from. When I was in grad school, my father mailed me a poem he'd written in rhymed quatrains that spoke in vague, symbolic language about a child who broke the mould set for them by their parents and teachers. When I talked to him on the phone about it, he suggested I try to get it published, that people would relate because it was his thoughts and feelings on paper. This was a man who had just watched me take four years of undergraduate courses in the field of poetry. If a genie ever granted me three wishes, I would spend one of them on eradicating the belief in the spontaneous and unteachable nature of poetry from the earth.

 

- Kayla Czaga, from her essay "The Art of Rereading" in Resonance: Essay on the Craft and Life of Writing (Anvil Press, 2022). 

4/21/2022

true power

Gaspereau Press: You have long been an activist for peace and disarmament. What's the relationship between poetry and activism? Would you be a poet if you were not an activist, an activist if you were not a poet?

Sean Howard: I fear this may sound facetious, but would I breathe in, if I didn't breathe out? I experience poetry (as writer and reader) as an activation, at once, of language and self: a vivid liberation of the customarily dormant expressive energies of each! And I conceive of peace not primarily as an aspiration but rather the activation of its own transformative potential. As some pacifists like to say, while the bad news is "there is no way to peace," the good news is "peace is the way"! A peaceful society, I think, would be not just one secure from attack (from within or without) but one providing - and in turn sustained by - securely self-expressive, self-organized ways of being human: and this seem intimately related to the self-creative self-organization of language at work (and play) in poetry. The problem is that 'peace' has come to mean, in our world culture of violence, something admirable but weak that needs protection; just as - not coincidentally! - poetry is often written off as pretty, but pretty inconsequential, language. In reality, both are about reality, and thus true power: about real-izing the power of the real world again.


 - Sean Howard, from Gaspereau Press' wonderful 2021 catalogue, Another Plague Year Reader.

4/18/2022

points of connection

Gaspereau Press: The tensions between development and preservation come up quite a bit in this book, as they frequently do in our daily lives. What role do you think poetry has to play in helping communities reconcile these tensions? 

Bren Simmers: First off, I think poetry can help us to reconcile those tensions within ourselves. Poetry asks hard questions; it holds us accountable. As I write this, I sit on a wooden chair; it holds us accountable. As I write this, I sit on a wooden chair, reading these questions on a cell phone full of precious metals like gold, silver and copper. My shelves of books, all printed on paper pulped from coniferous forests. And while I recycle and reuse my bread bags, I still drive the car to go hiking every weekend. Poetry holds space for complexity...

At a community forum, with people shouting over one another, it can be hard to listen to each other, to see points of connection. But because reading is a solitary endeavour, ideas presented in poem form can be taken in slowly with space to digest them. Poetry allows us to see our commonalities, and for m, that is the starting place for moving forward together as a community.

- Bren Simmers, from Gaspereau Press' wonderful 2021 catalogue, Another Plague Year Reader.

4/14/2022

the pen vacillates and hesitates

I so much wish to speak with you in person. My pen has grown a bit cold and exhausted from using it apart from my actual work. It seems to me that this dual use, which is already so damaging to writing, makes it sometimes entirely uncertain. Because what one expresses immediately, just in order to communicate something, is so very different from the lasting expression of art that needs to be captured and accepted with full consciousness in order to make itself be understood much later. And the pen, between those two tasks, vacillates and hesitates. So many times I envied Rodin his docile and relaxed earthen clay, which cannot be used to say hello or to order a meal!


- Rainer Maria Rilke, from a letter to Catherine Pozzi (August 21, 1924), as translated by Ulrich Baer in his collection of Rilke's letters, The Dark Interval: Letters on Loss, Grief and Transformation.

4/11/2022

something can be marvelous and still need to be stopped

I've never had much problem having a sense of where a movement ended and where I wanted to break a stanza. Though what happens is, you learn to write a poem that breaks stanzas in a certain way, that takes certain kinds of linguistic, syntactic turns to stand for closure. You recognize that turn as closure, and as soon as that moment of recognition happens, then you've got to stop doing it. Because then what you're doing is simply making of everything the same poem. You look at a tree, and you turn that into a tree poem, and you look at a rock, and you turn that into a rock poem. They all have the same arc. As soon as you can recognize a consistent shaping principle, recognize that a certain kind of sentence is always a cue to you for an end, then you've got to resist the cue.

...

Something can be marvelous and still need to be stopped. Otherwise you don't change. It's as simple as that. And if you don't change, then you stop writing good poems. Really. I believe that. So when you can identify something as a maneuver, however successful, even if you never do it badly, you should stop doing it. 

...

I found writing [my new poems] that I had much greater difficulty knowing when something was good and something wasn't good. This is always true when style changes. Because your editorial judgment has been honed to a particular method. The tools you have for recognizing errors and intentions in that method are no longer of any use. So you have to develop a whole other critical sense. And the transition is difficult, because you usually have very little sense of whether or not you've written anything - I mean, you keep thinking, This is absolute trash; this is trash. But you've got to write it.

...

If I have any message to any of you who write, it's that you cannot sit calmly repeating yourself. And the hard thing about that is, oftentimes when you change, the new poems, the adventurous poems, may be less successful than the evolved poems of another mode. So you have to be willing to set aside that degree of finish, that degree of polish, for something that might seem primitive. 

Now, not all such transitions work that way. Occasionally you will discover a new kind of language that will seem to you an advance. Or will make the other poems look thin. Which is I guess how you experience advance - the rug pulled out from underneath you; it's never completely positive; if you like what you're doing, then it makes everything else that you did look crummy.

But oftentimes it won't happen that way. Oftentimes what will happen is that you will find yourself writing less accomplished poems, and you have to be willing. Because there's no other choice. You can't go on writing poems in those rehearsed ways... As soon as expectation begins to form around your work, either on your part or on the part of readers, you must do your best not to gratify it.


- Louise Glück, in conversation with Pearl London in 1978, from Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversations with America's Poets (ed. Alexander Neubauer, Knopf, 2011). 

4/07/2022

rhyme has never been enough for me

I have been asked very often, "Don't you care about rhyme?" I do and I don’t. That is, I care about the recurrence of sound deeply, deeply, and rhyme has never been enough for me. Rhyme, the European way, is a return of sound once in a poem. I have, in my greed, wanted more than that, wanted modulation of sound changing, climbing as I think of it. On the page it’s going down the page, but somehow as one hears the poem, it’s climbing up and up and up until one reaches a kind of tonic sound, which is the last word in the poem for me. In rewriting, I have tried always to strengthen the sound structure and to make a dense fabric, of sound, of fact, of reality, and truth.

For instance, long ago I wrote a group of poems called "Ajanta." They're the cave paintings in India. The first line of those poems is "Came in my full youth to the midnight cave" and that, I hope, has the tensile strength of an arch. "Came" and "cave" are the feet of the arch. "In my" and "midnight" go together. "Full youth" and "to the" come together as the arch, and it is that sound structure that makes it stick, I believe. The other main sounds of the poem are picked up all the way through, and they come back and modulate. And those things do play not only on the memory but on the imagination.

We are in the midst of a huge reaction against the formalism of rhyme in poetry so that a lot of our contemporary poems are way off on the other side and are, I hesitate to say this, really kind of notebook jottings. Brilliant, full of perception, but without the sound structure in which a deep strength fuses with the literal meanings. 

- Muriel Rukeyser, in conversation with Pearl London in 1978, from Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversations with America's Poets (ed. Alexander Neubauer, Knopf, 2011).