12/05/2022

Matsuki Masutani on Writing


I loved Matsuki Masutani's poetry before I'd seen his first book. I was a juror with Poetry in Transit that year, and as I was sifting through the submissions, I came upon his poem and was seized by a swift joy - one of those readerly experiences you dream of:

At a Party

I am one of two
Japanese men on the island.
I have long hair and Yoshi’s is short.
He wears glasses and I don’t.
Still, many people
mix us up.
When people ask me,
“Do you make miso?”
(which Yoshi does)
I say,
“Almost.” 
 
The poem went on to be included in the series, soon after the book in which it appeared was published. That book, Masutani's debut collection I Will Be More Myself In The Next World (Mother Tongue Publishing, 2021), was my favourite of the year, and I was thrilled when it was longlisted for the Gerald Lampert award for first poetry book (and comparatively peeved when it went no further, spurring me to have an "I’mma let you finish, but..." Kanye West/Taylor Swift moment).

Masutani's precision and openness - such a difficult combination to achieve - created these easy-to-access, yet profound (and often very funny) poems. They are poems that seem deceptively simple and yet take a lifetime to master. 

Here's another example:

My fourteen-year-old daughter

asked me, "Dad, do you worry
about losing our respect?"
"No! Not at all," I replied.
"That's good."
She sounded relieved.

In bed, I wondered what she meant.
Soon a watchman in a dark costume
appeared and gazed 
at the lake of my consciousness,
as if to prevent 
a dragon from emerging.

The watchman's earnestness 
prevented me from sleeping
for a long time.

Matsuki Masutani
I anticipate (dread?) just such conversations with my own children down the road. And I'm struck, against and again, by the fact that it's the watchman's earnestness, and not the dragon itself, that keeps the speaker from sleep.

I interviewed Masutani about the book for EVENT Magazine (you can read that interview here), and was lucky enough to read at an event with him for WORD Vancouver. Still, I wanted to know more - and I suspected my students would, too. We were lucky enough to have Masutani  agree to visit our (virtual) classroom at SFU's The Writer's Studio last week. 

The conversation went much the way Masutani's poems do. When a student would ask him a question, his answer - often preceded by a length of silence - was short and to the point. If he didn't have a good answer to a question, he simply reply, with a smile, "I don't know." (How different from other writers - like me - who'd fill that space with panicked babble.) When an answer came, though, it was as precise and open as his poems, and very useful. 

During our talk, a storm on was raging on Denman Island, where Masutani lives with his wife (the star of many of his poems), and his connection was cut on a couple occasions. I was lucky, in those moments, to be able to circle back to what had been said, and record some of Masutani's very quotable replies before I'd forgotten them. Here are a few of his many observations, which I think are great reminders for poets, both aspiring and mid-career: 

On why he writes poetry: 

"Most of my friends are great talkers, but I'm not, so I wrote poems instead."

On working with his family and publisher to make his book: 

"Making a book is a collaboration. I'm just a part of it."

On the importance of writing in a writer's life: 

"Life is more than just literature." 
 
On translating his own writing into Japanese: 

"I know more than the words about these poems."  

On receiving edits to his poems: 

"It was difficult, but I knew these are not the last poems I'll write."
 
I'll have to paraphrase another one of my favourite quotes, as I didn't get it down, but when asked about the audience he writes for, he said he writes for his wife, in hopes that he might make her laugh. I can think of few more lovely ways to approach the page. 

Our conversation helped recentre me in thinking about my own writing, and my life in/around writing. Hopefully these quotes can do a little of the same for you.

To close, here's one more open, precise poem from Masutani, which likely made his wife laugh. Its last line could easily serve as my epitaph (as I suspect it could for any number of us):

As we rocked on rough waves

I said to myself, "What would
my mother think of me
dying on a sailboat?"

I got more scared and clung 
to the rails, praying
in silence, leaving control
of the boat to a priest
I barely knew.

Finally, I said, "Is the worst
over?"

Cupping his hand to his ear, 
he smiled.

I'd planned for 
a different kind
of sailing, packing
my flute
and a book.


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Matsuki Masutani is a poet and translator living on Denman Island. He moved from Tokyo to Vancouver in 1976. Ten years later he moved to Denman Island, where he eventually began writing poems in English and Japanese. He has translated Canadian works such as Roy Kiyooka’s Mothertalk, Hiromi Goto’s Chorus of Mushrooms, and from Japanese into English, Kishizo Kimura’s memoir, Witness to Loss, published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in 2017. His poems have appeared in Geist magazine, Capilano Review and in the anthology Love of the Salish Sea Islands.

12/01/2022

a reader of the highest caliber, that is to say, disinterested

To P.Z.D., from Chorzów

“Please give me some hope of publication, or at least provide some consolation.” We must, after reading, choose the latter. So attention please, we’re giving comfort. A splendid fate awaits you, the fate of a reader, and a reader of the highest caliber, that is to say, disinterested—the fate of a lover of literature, who will always be its steadiest companion, the conquest, not the conqueror. You will read it all for the pleasure of reading. Not spotting “tricks,” not wondering if this or that passage might be better written, or just as well, but differently. No envy, no dejection, no attacks of spleen, none of the sensations accompanying the reader who also writes. For you Dante will always be Dante, whether or not he had aunts in the publishing business. You will not be tortured at night by the question of why X., who writes free verse, gets published, while you, who rhyme relentlessly while counting syllables on both hands, don’t even merit rejections. The editor’s facial expressions will mean less than nothing to you, while the wincing at various stages will signify, if not nothing, then at least not much. And there is also this not inconsiderable benefit: people speak of incompetent writers, but never of incompetent readers. There are of course hordes of failed readers—needless to say, we do not include you among them—but somehow they get away with it, whereas anyone who writes without success will instantly be deluged in winks and sighs. Not even girlfriends are to be relied upon in such cases. So how do you feel now? Like a king? We should hope so.

- Wisława Szymborska, replying to the "Literary Mailbox" in Literary Life magazine. As collected in her book How to Start Writing (and When to Stop): Advice for Authors.

11/28/2022

the description itself must happen

To Pal-Zet, from Skarżysko-Kam.

After reading the enclosed verses we conclude that you don't sense the fundamental difference between poetry and prose. The poem entitled "Here," for instance, offers a modest prose description of a room and the furniture it holds. In prose, such descriptions serve a strict defined purpose: they provide the backdrop against which the action will take place. At any moment the door will open, someone will enter, something will happen. In poetry, the description itself must happen. Everything is important, meaningful: the choice of images, their placement, and the shape they take in words. The description of an ordinary room becomes a discovery of that room before our eyes, the emotion accompanying that discovery becomes our own. The prose writer slices sentences into lines with infinite care - but his prose stays prose. Worse still - nothing happens.

- Wisława Szymborska, replying to the "Literary Mailbox" in Literary Life magazine. As collected in her book How to Start Writing (and When to Stop): Advice for Authors.

11/21/2022

An Interview with Michael Hingston

The following interview was originally published in June 2011 on Michael Hingston's Too Many Books in the Kitchen blog. 


Michael Hingston: You've published your poetry widely for a number of years now, but The Other Side of Ourselves marks your full-length debut. While preparing it, how much did you think about the first impression you were giving off to the poetry world at large? Did you try and make the collection somehow representative of your identity as a poet (interests, sensibilities)—or was it simply a clearing house for the previous year's worth of work?

Rob Taylor: A damn good question to start off. In preparing my initial manuscript I was concerned that I show my diversity, covering a variety of forms, themes, and techniques that, hopefully, would provide something for every reader (and critic!). When the book was accepted by Cormorant, however, my editor (Robyn Sarah) aggressively cut out the poems that didn't fit in the main lyrical vein. More specifically, she cut out the poems that were showy but hollow - that sounded more interesting than they felt. This freaked me out, as these days the Canadian poetry world seems much more focused on technique than content, and when it comes to content, plain-spoken emotion is on the outs. And here was my editor cutting out the technically sophisticated poems and replacing them with less technically-torqued, but more heartfelt, poems...

I argued with Robyn about this for a short while, but then I sat back and thought about what I was trying to do, which was to produce a great book, not cover my ass. I decided that I’d rather make a book that felt cohesive than a “safe” hodgepodge of poems. I knew I would get a tongue-lashing for that from those in different aesthetic camps (and I already have), but that seemed a small sacrifice for producing a more purposeful, emotionally resonant, book.

MH: That review in the National Post was interesting—it posits that poets can either be "cool", or else they can genuinely engage with human feelings and interactions. You were deemed to be the latter. What do you think of that binary, and your place in it? Are those two things really incompatible?

RT: In the reviewer’s defense, it’s hard to put “hooks” on poetry books, and trying to do so often leads to goofy binaries. Not doing so, though, makes it hard to write a cohesive short review (especially when covering multiple books). It’s best not to take the rhetoric of the short review too seriously.  

As for my place in the goofy binary, I’m certainly comfortable being the genuine, uncool guy. When asked about clarity and simplicity in his poetry, W.S. Merwin said that he wanted, ultimately, for the reader to feel like they’d written the poems themselves. That is a more interesting and fulfilling goal to me than being “cool”, which as a posture is more concerned with the author than the reader.

All that said, of course, “cool” and genuine aren’t incompatible, so long as your understanding of “cool” is sophisticated enough to require honesty, vulnerability, and humility.

MH: Diplomatic to the end! Let's back up a little: you and I met in 2005 at Simon Fraser University, a weird little mountaintop school just outside of Vancouver. I knew of you as a poet from the very beginning, thanks to High Altitude Poetry, the quarterly campus zine you co-founded. Can you tell me a little about how poetry had entered your life so early—and what inspired you to branch out and create your own outlet for it?

RT: I didn’t come to poetry until mid-way through my History degree at SFU – at the time, it felt like I was coming to it very late. I began accumulating poems, here and there, by W.B. Yeats, Robert Frost, W.C. Williams, etc. that I couldn’t shake from my head. Al Purdy was the first Canadian poet to worm his way in there, and that was a turning point for me: until then I hadn’t thought of poetry as something that Canadians could do. 

I helped found High Altitude Poetry having only written a dozen or so poems. That was less rash than when, one year prior to HAP, I founded SFU’s curling club having only curled once before. In both cases I was motivated partly out of personal interest and partly out of my bewilderment that SFU didn’t have pre-existing clubs for these things. Seriously, pre-2001 SFU students, what was the deal with that?

HAP was easier to found than the curling club because there was a group of us running it, led by Stephen Buckley. Oh, and the zine was published bi-monthly, not quarterly... we never would have reached 10,000 copies with such a lackadaisical publishing schedule. 

MH: And what, specifically, was the moment you switched from "poetry as something Canadians could do" to "poetry as something you could do"? Were you at all self-conscious about taking the plunge?

RT: It wasn't my first poem, but the first time I set an extended period of time aside specifically to write poetry was on a vacation in Campbell River (I had the travel budget of a poet long before I considered myself one). I spent a whole afternoon at the beach, staring out at the ocean and waiting for something to happen. Eventually something did, and while in hindsight the poem was terrible (seven metered, rhyming stanzas comparing my soul to a pebble), it was exhilarating at the time. I've been addicted to that thrill ever since. 

I only became self-conscious about my poetry when I first shared it with others, which happened at the second HAP meeting (yes, I helped found a poetry club having never shared my poems with anyone - rash, as I said). My heart wasn't in my throat, but it was definitely making plans to relocate. Luckily, those first few poems had jokes in them, and I got laughs, which as reactions go is inferior to the "poetry noise" ("mmm" or "ah" or my personal favourite, "hm"), but was more than enough on that day. Since then, both the quality of the poems and my self-consciousness about them have increased steadily, almost in tandem.

MH: Something I've always found intimidating about poetry is how delicate and intricate and ornate a form it is. If poetry is building a ship in a bottle, a novel is more like building an actual ship. What makes a poem successful to you—both as a writer and a reader?

RT: I’ve never thought of poetry as delicate or ornate, though it is often intricate (and occasionally intimidating). I mostly think of it as big things compressed into small vessels – in this sense your ship-in-bottle metaphor is fitting. But the metaphor is also deceptive – the ship in the bottle is small, and the difficulty is in constructing it within the constraints of the bottle; the poem, on the other hand, only appears small and the difficulty only appears to be writing the poem within the constraints of the form (this is especially true for formal poems, sonnets, sestinas, etc.). In fact, the poem is incredibly large and the difficulty is in fitting something incredibly large into something much smaller without damaging it, so that down the road the reader can unpack it and restore it to its original size (or possibly an even larger size). So it’s more like a zip file than a ship in a bottle, I suppose. In this sense, a poem is no different than a novel, except that in a great poem the zip file is more efficiently compressed.

There are so many things that can make a poem successful. I’m not of the opinion that a poem must last through the ages (must “help prolong the Latin names around the base”, as Larkin put it in “An Arundel Tomb”) in order to be a success. If it offers catharsis to writer or reader, challenges an assumption, produces a laugh – any of these are greater accomplishments than many works of art achieve, and should be relished. 

Perhaps more helpful here would be my thoughts on the ideal poem: for me, the ideal poem gives pleasure immediately on first reading. What that specific pleasure is – a laugh, an insight, a turn of phrase, a certain rhythm or rhyme scheme – is not overly significant, what matters is that there is pleasure first. As Robert Frost said, “A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom”, to which W.S. Merwin added “And it will never end in wisdom if it doesn’t begin in delight and continue in delight.” Both ring true to me. 

The second requirement is that the pleasure produces a curiosity, and a desire to re-read the poem. On subsequent readings, the poem then needs to prove layered and nuanced enough to consistently release new bits of pleasure and induce new bouts of curiosity, every reading encouraging another, accruing pleasure along the way. To make a poem that lasts like that indefinitely is probably impossible, but there are certainly some poems that are still alive for me after dozens of readings. I hope one day to be able to produce a similar poem for others, as the great poets of the past have done for me.

MH: How do you think SFU specifically affected your development as a poet?

RT: As I’ve touched on above, SFU shaped my development as a poet by its absences, and the opportunities those absences granted me. I don’t think my story is unique – SFU is a school with a short history and an often indifferent student body. If anything has developed as a tradition at SFU, it’s that if you want to see something happen, you better make it happen yourself. I found that to be liberating.

When it came to poetry specifically, for those outside of the English department there were few venues to share and discuss poetry, either in person or in print (for instance, the English department’s presence in general campus life was so minimal that I didn’t learn of the existence of SFU’s literary magazine, West Coast Line, until my 4th year). Even after helping establish High Altitude Poetry, I felt like an outsider in SFU’s writing community, which made it easier for me to do my own thing without fear of repercussions. 

While at SFU I wrote hundreds of poems and sent them off to dozens of magazines - I started with The New Yorker and worked my way down. At first, everything was rejected (and, in hindsight, probably ridiculed around editing tables), but eventually a few magazines took interest. By the time my book was accepted I had over one hundred poems published in magazines, journals and anthologies. 

In the last few years I’ve gotten to meet a number of talented emerging writers who have hardly begun to “emerge” because they are too afraid to send their work out. Almost all of them have taken a creative writing program of one sort or another, and most have spent a decent amount of money studying their craft as well. Because of all this, the pressure they feel to succeed, or at least to not make asses of themselves, seems to paralyze them. If I’d taken the same path I probably would have been paralyzed as well. Even now, the more I learn about the publishing world, especially how small and sharp-edged it can be, the more hesitant I am to put work out there. To an extent, that caution is a good thing (there are many things I wish I’d held back on), but I’m still glad that I was comparatively reckless early on. 

No matter how much you prepare and polish and incubate your work, you’re going to make a fool of yourself at the beginning. And you’ll keep making a fool of yourself for years afterward, probably for your whole life. Lord knows I haven’t stopped. But if you keep at it this miraculous thing happens - people read your work, take it into themselves, and turn it into something more beautiful and mysterious than you ever could have imagined on your own. To be able to spend your life being a part of that process is humbling, and well worth pushing through those first nervous steps. 

I didn’t learn that at SFU, instead I was so enthusiastic and ignorant that I failed to realize I was supposed to be nervous. SFU deserves some of the credit for that.


11/07/2022

A Real Donnie Brasco Situation: An Interview with Shaun Robinson

 An excerpt from this interview was published in CV2 Magazine's Fall 2021 issue

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Chelsea Motel - Shaun Robinson

A man on the sidewalk carries a chair on his head 
like a set of cast-iron antlers. It must be nice 
to always have somewhere to sit, though hard 
on the neck. I probably look that awkward 
bearing my clumsy love through all these doorways 
and Tuesdays, trying not to get tangled in awnings. 
If it were fabric, I’d drape it over my arm to save you 
a seat in the restaurant. It’s weird, Chelsea. 
Whenever I text to ask what I should order, 
my phone changes Malbec to becalm, like a bartender 
saying I’ve had one too many. Let’s settle 
for Caesars and hope they don’t turn into race cars 
by the time they get to the table. Back at my motel, 
there’s a sign on the wall that starts a sentence 
with If you discover a fire and ends it with a map. 
As if fire were some new Florida and we were at sea 
on a queen-sized raft. But you can find fire 
anywhere, Chelsea. If you ask at the desk, 
they’ll give you a book of matches. 
And the waiter is moving from table to table 
with a lighter and a candle.



Reprinted with permission from 
(Brick Books, 2020).

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Shaun Robinson’s poetry has appeared in The Puritan, The Malahat Review, Prairie Fire, Poetry Is Dead, and the Rusty Toque, and received Honourable Mention in ARC Magazine’s 2018 Poem of the Year contest. Born in 100 Mile House, BC, Robinson has lived in Vancouver since 2006. He studied in UBC’s Creative Writing MFA program, where he served as the poetry editor of PRISM international. He is also the author of the chapbook Manmade Clouds and currently works as an editor for the chapbook press Rahila’s Ghost. If You Discover a Fire is his debut collection.

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Rob Taylor: It doesn't take long to discover a fire in your debut collection, If You Discover a Fire (Brick Books, 2020). The book's opening poem features matches and cigarettes, and some manifestation of fire/matches/flames appears in more than a quarter of the poems (yes, I counted!). What is it about fire, and the potential for fire, that keeps you returning to it? Are you part moth?

Shaun Robinson: Fire is both completely common and kind of magical, which is what I'm aiming for in my poems. I'm thinking in particular of the free books of matches you can get at a hotel or restaurant or gas station—it’s a minor miracle that a little strip of paper with a few chemicals on the end can turn into this tiny jewel of flame, and then flame can light a cigarette or candle or campfire or barbeque, or light up a dark room, or burn a letter, or start a forest fire. Fire is a very powerful force that many of us carry around in our pockets without giving it a second thought. 

RT: You certainly give it second, third, fourth, fifth…. thoughts! One of your “fiery” poems, "How Soon, How Likely, How Severe," jumped out at me when I read it in ARC, and I selected it for inclusion in Best Canadian Poetry 2019. In your author’s note at the back of BCP 2019, you write that you were required to take a Forest Fire Suppression course while working on a tree-planting crew. How did that experience—both the training and the working all day in a tinder box, planting new little matches—influence how you wrote about fire?

SR: I think they're different kinds of fire. The fire in most of my poems is a metaphor or a turn of phrase—the title of the book, for example, comes from the emergency maps posted in apartments and offices and hotels. This was more of a work poem than anything for me. I was interested in the jargon, in the concrete images I came across doing the work, in what it was like to get through a fifteen hour work day or a fourteen day shift. In what you have to shut down in yourself to get through that. 

RT: Getting through long days of manual labour features in a number of your poems: at one point in If You Discover a Fire, you describe your years of tree-planting as carrying "a tiny forest in a pair of bags / on my hips, wandering through the aftermath of catastrophe, wondering where I should put it." It's tempting to draw comparisons between tree planting and poem writing—placing and placing these little possibilities in the ground and hoping they'll grow—but in other ways, of course, they are wildly different. Did you write much while you were tree planting? 

SR: I would write almost nothing in the course of a tree-planting season. On a good day off I might take down a few lines in a notebook, but in general I've found that manual labour makes impossible the kind of sustained attention that allows me to produce poetry. 

RT: Though you didn’t write, did you learn anything that has proved useful in your writing life?

SR: The valuable thing I got from bush work was time. When I was younger I could make enough in four or five months to take the rest of the year off. I had much more freedom in the off-season to pursue my art than I would have in a normal profession that required year-round attendance.
 
RT: In "The Future Lives Here" you write:

I couldn't believe I'd moved to the city
to be trapped in a truck
with this Prince George hick,
a dead ringer for every man I'd known
in seventeen small-town years.

You were raised in 100 Mile House, but have spent most of your adult life in Vancouver. What parts of the region do you miss and desire to hold on to? Like the guy in his truck, what elements of small-town life in the Cariboo can you not quite escape?

SR: It's too long of a story for a literary bio, so I don't usually go into it, but I actually grew up in three different B.C. towns—first 100 Mile House, then Terrace for a year, then Kitimat for essentially my entire adolescence. I also studied English at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops for a couple years before dropping out, spent a winter in hostel in downtown Victoria between tree-planting seasons when I was twenty-one or twenty-two, and moved to the West Kootenays for two years. And even though I've been in Vancouver since 2006, until recently I would spend up to six or seven months of the year in various town in the interior or on the island. 

So I really have a hard time talking about the dualities of city and country, then and now, etc. I will say that I have a much less reverent conception of nature than most of my city friends. I'm aware of how much of what people think of as “natural” is almost completely permeated by human activity and technology, of how apparent wilderness is actually interwoven with omnipresent infrastructure of resource extraction. Environmentalism has made people more aware of how constructed “nature” is, but it’s one thing to know it academically and another to participate in it. 

RT: How do you think your upbringing, and your ping-ponging in and out of the city, has allowed you see Vancouver differently?

SR: I have a completely different class background from all of my friends in the city. My parents and their siblings were loggers, miners, soldiers, truckers, receptionists, mechanics. Some of them made good money at different points along the curve of various boom-and-bust cycles, but as a rule they didn't have post-secondary educations and they didn't have professional jobs. I still have a hard time at dinner parties. We didn't have those when I was a kid—we had huge, messy gatherings, three or four generations of the extended family eating in someone's huge back yard off of paper plates, dogs and babies running free underfoot, the kids sneaking off to build forts or chase cows or get into fights. I am not good at the very subtle war of manners of a middle-class dinner table. It makes me squirm and drink too much and mistime my jokes. 

That being said, I moved to Vancouver when I was 26. I've now lived here longer than I have anywhere else. I have a Master of Fine Arts degree. If there weren't a worldwide pandemic I would drink one to two espresso drinks every day and visit several thrift stores and maybe write a poem. I'm more Vancouver than I am not. 

RT: As a lifelong Vancouverite who’s never drunk an espresso, I reluctant accept that the rest of your description is accurate… 

In "Stereognostic" you write "I want to know [the poem] / the way the kids with sticks know where to swing." This recalled for me Billy Collins' poem "Introduction to Poetry" in which students beat a poem "with a hose / to find out what it really means," though the two are saying different things. Has what it means to "know" a poem shifted for you over the years?

SR: I loved that you picked "Stereognostic" (from the Greek words for "solid" and "knowledge") as a reference point for this particular question. The “knowledge” in question is sensory and tactile, more instinctive than cerebral. I was definitely one of the students Collins was talking about at one point, treating a poem like an archaeological site through which I had to carefully dig for hidden meaning. These days I think of a poem as a vinyl record. The reader's mind is the record player’s needle. In other words, I think that, regardless of the intentions of the author, whatever sensations occur in the mind of the reader when they read the poem are the poem. A poem is a kind of incantation—the words on the page are just words until someone reads them. When you read it, you're casting a spell, and the spell is the poem. 

RT: Your path to understanding the spell of a poem has involved both in-classroom environments—you mentioned earlier your MFA from UBC—and extended periods outside academia. Could you talk about that journey? 

SR: For most of my life I was primarily a fiction writer. I tried to write poetry, and read a lot of it, but most of my models were older: Robert Lowell, W.H. Auden, John Ashbery, Emily Dickinson, people like that. All writers I still enjoy, but not exactly emblems of the twenty-first century zeitgeist. 

The first two contemporary poets I found who really spoke to me were Ben Lerner and Patricia Lockwood. I found some of Lerner's sonnets from his first book on the Paris Review website—they were funny and absurd and played with the vernacular in a way that really appealed to me. I remember one poem of his that ended with the line "The chicken is a little dry and/or you've ruined my life." I loved that irreverence. 

The first Patricia Lockwood poem I read was a very long poem about Popeye called "When We Move Away From Here, You'll See a Clean Square of Paper Where His Picture Hung." It blew me away because of the way she turned the poem's reality on its head midstream, how something that was a metaphor in one line became real in the next. Her poems were like Looney Tunes poems—the Roadrunner painting a tunnel on the side of a mountain and then running through it. 

I have to say that both of them were bad influences on my writing for a long time. I definitely have a couple of poems in the book from the phase when I wanted to be Patricia Lockwood. 

RT: You edit for Rahila's Ghost Press, a Vancouver-based chapbook publisher established by fellow UBC MFA grad Mallory Tater, and you also served the poetry editor at PRISM international. How have those experiences influenced how you thought about your own writing and publishing?

SR: More and more I see literature as the expression of a community's collective activity rather than the work of an individual author. Before I was as close as I am now to the means of production, I thought of books as things that authors wrote and readers read, without considering how they got from one to the other. Now I see it as more of a web—writers are readers, readers are editors, editors are writers, etc.

RT: Yes, there’s little linear about it; instead all this talking back and forth and across. Similarly, a poet’s books and chapbooks can talk to one another. I love when a poet publishes a chapbook soon before a book, with both featuring the same poems: it provides so many opportunities to compare and contrast! 

Your chapbook Manmade Clouds (Frog Hollow, 2017) contains earlier versions of 40% of the poems in If You Discovered a Fire (yes, I did more counting!). While you left some of the poems unchanged, you altered many, with the biggest edits coming around shortened line lengths and, most notably, endings. "Tuesday" lost its last three lines (in a fifteen line poem!), while "Your Love Will Help a Child in Need" lost the last two, and a whopping 19 of the final 22 lines in "I Used to Walk Around With a Tiny Forest" up and disappeared. 

Were these reductions (in word count and shape) the product of new thinking about your poetry, or the editorial intervention of your Brick editor (John Barton), or both?

SR: If I recall, I think the edit to “Tuesday” was suggested by Karen Solie, who was my thesis advisor during my MFA. The other big edits were of my own prerogative. I'm a tireless meddler when it comes to poems, which is one of the reasons it's taken me longer than the average person to publish a first book. Some edits were because I was never happy with the poems in the first place but had to eventually let go of them for the sake of the chapbook publication, and some were the natural product of having a poem lie around for several years—eventually you're no longer the same person who wrote the poem, and you try to turn it into the poem the person you've now become would have written. 

RT: I think this is how people end up never publishing books at all! 

Your poems aren’t just written and edited by different people, they are written to them, too: "Tyler," in particular, is a recurring character in If You Discovered a Fire, with three of the book's best poems written to him directly (whoever he is - it's never really made clear). 

Epistolary poems of this type are popular in the UBC-Rahila's Ghost circle of poets, with recent books by Mallory Tater, Adèle Barclay, Kyla Jamieson and Kayla Czaga all featuring poems directly addressed to someone else (and, often enough, each other). What's going on with all these letter-poems? 

SR: I think everyone was reading Maggie Nelson's Bluets and Chris Kraus's I Love Dick, both epistolary books of indeterminate genre. Kayla mentions the Kraus book in one of her Kyla poems, in fact. I was also personally influenced by Adèle's letter poems. I met Adèle right at the start of my MFA and I remember her using the phrase “the poetics of coterie,” speaking, I think, of the New York School poets, O'Hara and Koch and Ashbery. These poets were influences as well, I believe—they also liked to address their work to one another. O'Hara's famous formulation is that a poem is the equivalent to a phone call, but millennials don't like to talk on the phone so they write letters instead.  

RT: Why Tyler, specifically (or could it have been anyone)?  

SR: Tyler came into being when I was taking an instructional skills workshop as a TA in grad school. The instructor was talking about how to encourage students during classroom participation exercises and gave, as an example of encouragement, the phrase, “That's a terrific question, Tyler.” I think “terrific” is a hilarious word—it's very corny and old-fashioned. It sounds like sock hops and going steady. It's a golden retriever of a word. So I wrote the phrase down in my book, and it morphed into the title of the poem “Tyler, You're Terrific.” The Tyler character took on some of the qualities of the word “terrific”—bumbling and overly enthusiastic, trying hard and never quite succeeding. 

The poem was also influenced by the book “Tina” by Peter Davis, especially the exasperated tone of the relationship between Tyler and the poem's speaker. 

RT: You had me convinced he was a real person! 

Despite the omnipresence of fire (and Tyler), at the end of the day If You Discovered a Fire comes across as a general collection. It's also a book that clocks in at less than 70 pages. Both of those things feel rare in our current moment of longer, themed collections. Were both aspects of the book important to you? As a reader of poetry, what do you find yourself gravitating toward these days?

SR: I absolutely wanted this to be a collection of poems rather than a more unified work. I usually gravitate toward general collections. To me, each poem is its own world with its own physics and geography. 

The length of the collection, on the other hand, has more to do with my perfectionism and the glacial pace of my process than anything else. These are literally all the poems that I had in the world that I was willing to include in a manuscript. I do think that these particular poems could have become tiresome if the book went on for much longer than it did—they're not dense, exactly, but they're busy, crowded poems. I'm always afraid of overstaying my welcome. 

RT: Perhaps in line with your perfectionist tinkering, in "Year of the Monkey" you write about a man "sanding a section of awning tube / to make its surface rougher and more adherent." You then later add "The truth is / a certain amount of surface roughness is necessary," alluding, at least in part, to writing. What, to you, is the "surface roughness" in a poem that allows it to adhere to a reader? 

SR: I gravitate to the inelegant in a poem. I like the pathos of a metaphor that swings for the fences and doesn't quite connect. I like a poem that deliberately misunderstands a phrase or contradicts itself or forgets who its speaker was. “It's important to get things wrong,” according to my poem “Trivia Night.” By which I mean, partly, that I'd rather be rough and messy and adventurous than small and tidy and perfect.  

RT: And yet you say you’re a perfectionist when it comes to your poems! Do you see a contradiction there? Or is there such a thing as a perfected imperfect poem?

SR: I've definitely been guilty of spending too much time trying to manufacture elegant imperfections. It usually doesn’t work. I think the productive imperfections tend to come in the early drafting process, and part of what I'm doing in future drafts is trying to preserve those imperfections while strengthening the connective tissues and tightening the seams. Editing is kind of like restoring a heritage home—I don't want to get rid of what makes it special, but I have to make sure the house doesn't collapse. 

RT: I love that idea of sheltering certain necessary imperfections away from the brutalities of the editing process. It’s no easy feat to pull off. Speaking of poems-as-construction-projects, in an interview with Kevin Spenst on Wax Poetic Radio, you described your compositional process as assembling "piles of metaphors [you] found in different places." Can you talk about that a bit more? Your poems generally hold together with a linear narrative, so how do you go from the piles to the linear poem?  

SR: This might be one of those things that has more to do with the process than the product. I have some poems that begin as narratives and stay that way, but more often than not they begin as images or phrases in a notebook, and at some point I conceive of some kind of formal or narrative framework as an excuse to string them together. There are a few poems where this is more obvious, like “Tyler, You're Terrific” or the book's final poem, “Transactive Memory,” but I think in other cases there's a real Donnie Brasco situation where the poems have been living undercover for so long that they start believing their own lies. As I said earlier, I don't believe the author's intent is important, so this statement is more about how the poems come to be than about the final shape they take in a reader's mind. 

RT: Ha! May “Donnie Brasco situation” enter the editor’s lexicon! You often had me laughing while reading If You Discovered a Fire, though the poems, generally speaking, are serious in nature. Could you talk about the role of humour in your writing? What does the addition of a joke do to an otherwise serious poem?

SR: The essence of drama is that every word means something, every action has consequence, and our choices matter. I don't believe any of that. I think like itself is essentially comedic—it's absurd and incomprehensible and riddled with failure, but sometimes its failures rhyme is a way that's absolutely hilarious. I think humour can help you get closer to some very dark subjects. There's something life affirming about certain kinds of black humour—Samuel Beckett, for example—where for the sake of a joke you can gaze longer than normal at human misery, in a way that would be unbearable with a straight dramatic tone. 

RT: Your poems carry a flaneurial, funny, subtly surreal energy reminiscent of Frank O'Hara and James Tate. You mentioned O’Hara here earlier, and James Tate elsewhere, as influences. Could you talk about the impact their writing had on your own? Who would you point to as other major influences?

SR: More than either O'Hara or Tate, I'm influenced by writers I think of as having descended from them, such as Lockwood and Berman, who I mentioned earlier. I think the influence of Tate is very obvious with both of them. Berman even studied with him. And I think someone like Richard Siken, who was a huge influence on me, has a lot in common with O'Hara, from the preoccupation with art to the casual diction, though Siken's tone has a much more emotionally intense register. 

I like how O'Hara engaged with culture—he had contemporaries that might as well have been in ancient Rome as far as their images and allusions were concerned. O'Hara has paintings and oceans in his poems, but he also has Coca-Cola and newspapers and Billie Holiday. He lives in the same world as his readers. 

RT: Another artist whose work was filled with Coca-Cola and newspapers was the photographer Fred Herzog, who captured scenes of Vancouver street life in the '50s and '60s. If You Discovered a Fire features a poem about him entitled, "The Man Who Took Photos of Windows." Would you consider him an influence, in line with the others?

SR: I saw a display of Herzog's photos at a gallery probably about ten years ago and I loved them. I do think that there's something of a shared aesthetic between his photos and my poems. Street photography is an acquisitive practice. You're walking around and picking things up, images and signs and buildings and people. It's very much the flaneurial poem. 

RT: As you mentioned earlier, you've been at work on this book for a long time (references in some of the poems seem to place them pre-2010). Not to rush you, then, but do you have any thoughts towards what you are going to write next?  I'm certainly looking forward to whatever it might be.

SR: It has been a long time! The oldest poem in this book was written for Rhea Tregebov's poetry lecture class in the fall of 2012. I've been trying to piece together some new poems in the last few months, and I'd really like to write more about work. There are a few work poems in this book, but I think I have more to say about work and class and money and gender that I couldn't quite express in this book. 

RT: Whenever that new work (on work) arrives, I’ll very much be looking forward to it.

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You can relish all those years of making by picking up If You Discover a Fire at your local bookstore, or via the Brick Books website or, if you must, from Amazon.


10/24/2022

The Border Terrain: An Interview with Sadiqa de Meijer

An excerpt from this interview was published in ARC Poetry Magazine's Summer 2021 issue

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Ancestor vs. Ancestor – Sadiqa de Meijer

The darkness then was darker than we know;
it never left the corners of a room,
rose velvetly from cellars, where it blinded the potatoes—
like curd it formed a film on wooden spoons.

Grains of darkness clustered between brothers.
Dark moisture kept the cabbage leaves apart.
All over the old country, there were nights: no hands, no ground.
You’ve never really seen the stars.

And what was in it? Specters, wraiths—they spooked the horse.
Some things that people did.

A continent was dark. It could be what we wanted.

Animists, ivory, pith of strange fruits. We must have been,
for all intents, asleep.

When those nations flickered and were lit,
there was no fault to speak of.
And we didn’t speak of it.


Reprinted with permission from 
(Signal Editions, 2020).

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Sadiqa de Meijer is the author of the poetry collections Leaving Howe Island and The Outer Wards, and the essay collection alfabet/alphabet. Her work has won the CBC Poetry Prize and Arc’s Poem of the Year Contest, and was a finalist for the Pat Lowther Memorial Award. alfabet/alphabet won the 2021 Governor General's Literary Award for Non-Fiction (long after this interview was completed, or I might have mentioned it!). She lives with her family in Kingston, Ontario.

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Rob Taylor: The title poems of both of your poetry collections, Leaving Howe Island (Oolichan Books, 2013) and The Outer Wards (Vehicule Press, 2020), are about leaving one world behind, and the passage to a new one. Both books feature plane trips and end on images from journeys.

Your experiences as an immigrant from the Netherlands seems to run through everything you write. And yet these are two very different books, born out of distinct times in your life. Can you talk a little about the two title poems, and what each says about the larger collection?

Sadiqa de Meijer: Yes, the title poems both have to do with a ferry crossing that is made difficult somehow—in the first, there’s a storm, and in the second, there’s the question of how to take essential things along. “Leaving Howe Island” is a poem of immigration—the continued arrivals that occur after the initial, physical one; it’s based in a real landscape that the speaker and her family are getting to know. In “The Outer Wards,” the landscape resides in memory, the companions are imaginary, and the crossing is between life and death. The speaker herself has become the ferry operator. Your question leads me to name it: Leaving Howe Island as a book is concerned with geographic migration within familial circles, while The Outer Wards encounters the crossing into death from an inevitable solitude.

RT: Yes – goodness, that hits at the core of the books so well (though it does make The Outer Wards sound darker than it is). In considering “crossings,” your two poetry books are joined by your new essay collection, alfabet/alphabet (Palimpsest Press, 2020), though the crossing it explores is never fully completed: “Language is our fatherland, from which we can never emigrate,” reads the Irina Grivnina epigraph to the book.

You write very successfully about the interplay of English and Dutch in your poetry collections, and yet you turned to essays for alfabet/alphabet. Why essays? In what ways did non-fiction allow you to explore things which felt inaccessible in poetry?

SdM: The question of how Dutch inflected my writing in English was first asked of me in written interviews or in conversation about Leaving Howe Island, so my earliest responses were prose-ish attempts at answers. But they felt like the surface of something unexamined, so in the years that followed, I kept a notebook with thoughts on the subject. That’s the second half of the answer, really; I was having thoughts, which is not how poems start for me. The material—which was anecdotes, analyses of Dutch poetry, perspectives on translation—would have had to be transmuted into poems, whereas it was already very close to essays as the ideas arrived. I do love the essay form as a reader, so I imagine that its voices were stirring in me already.

RT: Poems that start from thoughts seem to be all the rage today—I’m glad you resist that temptation. In a recent interview, I heard you say that your poems start with sound. This didn’t surprise me in the least: the “adorable remora”! The “gulls gash[ing] the sky’s graphite fabric”! The nails that “click and slip against her rainbow abacus”! And in alfabet/alphabet you write, “the sound of Dutch exists like a faint carbon shadow in my English.” It seems like Dutch, or at least the “shadow sound” of Dutch, is there in the germ of each of your poems. Would you say that’s true?

SdM: That’s interesting—that is indeed the sum of those ideas, though I hadn’t reached the conclusion myself, which underscores my feeling that alfabet/alphabet would continue to change with every conversation and passing year if I didn’t draw a line. But yes, I suspect that when I hear a phrase (in my mind or ear) that sounds like the germ of a poem, the awareness is rooted in the depths of me, where Dutch is a major sonic current. Sound then continues to be part of the writing, like an invisible foundational pattern to the process, say as a snail shell keeps growing in a spiral—so I do believe that elements of the germ phrase (its rhythm, pitch, vowel intonations, etc.) would resonate outwards. And that’s probably part of what readers or listeners notice as a Dutch influence.

RT: Yes, I think so. Even if they don’t identify it as such, it’s there, doing its work. In alfabet/alphabet you write of the first poetry reading you attended in the Netherlands, where poets from various countries read without translations: “The sounds that came through the speakers were enigmatic and incantatory, almost like secular prayers.” Do you ever think about your own poems as strings of sound for non-English speakers? If so, how does that influence how you write?

SdM: You know, I think the reading made that impression on me because of my father’s Muslim prayers at home—I don’t speak Arabic, so one of my earliest and abiding notions of prayer was as enigmatic, lyrical sounds. I haven’t thought of how my own poetry registers with non-English speakers, but for alfabet/alphabet, I did ask English-speaking friends what Dutch sounds like to them. There was quite a consensus in the answers: invocations of other, similar languages (German, French, Old English), a sense of gray moods and weather elements, and a vast number of references to phlegm.

RT: Ha! You’ve lined up here your father’s religious prayers and the “secular prayers” of the poetry reading—do you think of your own poems as secular prayers, and is that part of your attraction to writing them?

SdM: No, I don’t think of my poems as prayers. But prayer as an idea and practice does draw me. I grew up in a mixed religious household (Muslim and Christian) and now I don’t consider myself to be either, but I do have a sense of faith that remains both nourished by and in struggle with what I was taught. I’m exploring some of that in a visual/literary project with a friend who was raised Jewish. I’m fascinated with prayer’s culturally divergent qualities of petition or lament or praise or interrogation, and what that implies about the entity being addressed. This is perhaps evident in that The Outer Wards contains poems exploring the direct address—to death, to a mountain, to a child, to a country, and to a river landscape, for example. It’s a voice that I love for its implied relational world. It is also a natural part of early childhood—in nursery rhymes and picture books, and especially in the child’s sense that all things are animate. Those of us who discard it sustain an enormous loss, and become capable of great harm.

RT: Isn’t that true—children, and their worldviews, can “reset” our minds in such necessary ways. The Outer Wards is full of profound moments of you seeing yourself more clearly through the eyes of your child (“I’ve never / elated anyone // as much as her inside our headlong now,” “I’ve never looked at the back of my hand as intently / as we have examined this street,” “I’m foreign, and she is home”). What has parenthood allowed you to learn about yourself that was previously invisible or inaccessible or muted?

SdM: Well, before I became a parent, much of what I lived and believed was grounded in a sort of communal struggle: I was against things (like patriarchy and racism and poverty and environmental degradation). I took part in protests and organizing and talks, and that was good and important work. I’m still against all the same things, but with the sense of being responsible for someone small and new, I felt an urgent question—I wanted to know what I was for, what I could pass on as things to believe in. The Che Guevara quote goes “…the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love,”—but his preface to that is “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that…” and I believe I’d unconsciously been placing more weight on that first phrase. It was protective; a layer of cynicism over the vulnerability of feeling love and grief for what was under siege. And that has turned—I can still be a marvellous cynic, but my emphasis has shifted to the side of that love, and to risking myself in its name, whether in a playground interaction or a broader, structured campaign.

RT: Let’s risk ridiculousness, then, and talk more about resistance and love. In the essay “heimwee/homesick,” you write of an encounter with a skinhead during a visit to the Netherlands. You note that the Dutch language has compound words for just about everything, but none that can describe that encounter, and that if Dutch is “that animate, evolving language… the medium of all our lives” then it’s “going to have to find the words.”

I’m writing to you during the protests and riots that have followed the murder of George Floyd by the police officer Derek Chauvin. People are still, unbelievably, arguing over the validity of the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” though of course their semantic debate is largely subterfuge for a far darker one. English, too, struggles to find the words.

It leads me to wonder to what extent language can save us. How much can the word correct the heart, as opposed to the heart correcting the word?

SdM: That’s such a profound question. I suspect it’s really more about our state of receptivity than the words themselves.

There are also distinctions in who is speaking to whom. When I was twenty-ish and a group of people at a BIPOC event welcomed me to their table with “you look like another mixie,” that last word was new and potent to me. Ethnically and racially, it was so unusual to be named with a term that signalled belonging. Within countless communities, established and transient ones, having a vocabulary for forms of ourselves, for our experiences, is crucial. Among BIPOC people, for instance, a phrase like “white fragility” is such a balancing force to the allegation that naming racism is inappropriate or hostile.

But those are examples of language affirming the heart, and you are asking about correction. I think that words may find their limits there. People can recite the proper terms while their world view remains exactly as it is—that’s widely evident right now in the Black Lives Matter statements from various corporations and politicians, for example. But limits are interesting, kinetic regions. When Dutch newspapers pledge to remove from their vocabulary a standard, antagonistic term for immigrants and refugees, that change won’t automatically overturn any racist ideas in individual readers, but it may gradually raise the public discourse to a more respectful level. And that isn’t nothing.

Of course there are writers who work at those limits so brilliantly. Part of my love for James Baldwin is for his sustained faith in his white-identified readers’ capacity to become receptive to words again—it remains such a generous and unearned gesture.

RT: Do you think the limits of how far language can push us vary from language to language, culture to culture?

SdM: For sure. Writing alfabet/alphabet, and having attendant conversations with people about their mother tongues, taught me that I only have the very beginnings of an understanding how profoundly languages can vary. Within my own realm, the Dutch approach of creating new compound words for culturally new practices or items is an example of language and thought working a particular way; the idea that existing terms, rearranged and coupled, will suffice—which implies that, even as it expands, the language is also already considered complete.

And culturally, so much is at play, including the differences between oral and written traditions. Anything that we store in ourselves to recite has more potential to shape and change us than text on a page. Words also lose power when they arrive in a deluge, as they do in many of our current lives. There are too many, and a great proportion are manipulatively oriented—for me, being a receptive reader or listener these days includes making room for silences, and choosing material that is particular and sincere.

RT: Do you ever wonder what kind of a poet you would have become if the two languages you’d been immersed in were different, say Swahili and Punjabi (two languages spoken by your father)?

SdM: Yes, I do wonder! And writing alfabet/alphabet caused me to really ask myself outright, though of course the answers rest in speculation. My father has often referred to Punjabi and Urdu as flowery and poetic languages—meaning in relation to English and Dutch, I suppose, in which he’s also fluent. When I imagine being immersed in a linguistic atmosphere like that, I feel excitement and curiosity about what poetry would or could then sound like, in harmony and in dissonance with the language itself. I’ll be reading more poetry translated from Urdu and Punjabi, in order to explore that further.

RT: In the essay “xenofobie/xenophobia,” you write “I have not experienced the limits of my languages as the limits of my world, but I am familiar with the sweet revelation of finding that the formerly inexpressible has a name.” To me, a poet’s greatest delight comes in discovering unexplored linguistic terrain – places where we don’t have a word or phrase to succinctly capture an experience (so we need to call on the poets!).

The first half of your quote feels in keeping with that delight, while the second half feels counter-intuitive (what’s the poet left to do?). But I suppose discovery unites the two: the poet creates new connections; the language-learner finds a connection others have made and handed down to them. Do you think your attractions to those two acts—creating and discovering your languages—are derived from the same source? Or are they distinct, if complimentary, impulses?

SdM: Yes, I agree that poets work in that border terrain between where language does and doesn’t usually go. But it’s a region that differs for each of us; it depends on which Englishes we speak, on our vocabularies, our courage, our subject matters, our aesthetic. Those things aren’t static—and to me, learning a word for something formerly nameless is simply another small movement of that edge of language. So I would say that the attraction is to a single practice; dwelling at that border and getting to know what is possible there.

RT: A wondrous thing happened to me while in the border terrain for your essay. As an example of the “sweet revelation of finding that the formerly inexpressible has a name,” you provide the example of the Punjabi word jugaad, which translates roughly as “mak[ing] do with what is at hand.” In reading that, I realised that some spirit of jugaad is central to my writing practice and my interest in confessional “domestic” poetry. I write about my own life because I believe it’s important to approach the universal through the particular, but also, I think, in this life-hacky, improvised spirit of “making do with what is at hand.” I limit the “materials” to what I encountered that week, or that day, or that hour, and use that as a generative restraint. Having a word for that was, indeed, a “sweet revelation.” You talk in your essay about the jugaad of your improvised standing desk and light-reflecting takeout container lids. Do you see jugaad in your writing practice as well?

SdM: I love that you had that realization. Yes, you’re right that my writing itself practice qualifies as jugaad—improvised, between interruptions, sometimes on the back of an envelope. When you apply the jugaad idea to subject matter—and of course I can very much relate to being drawn to the confessional and domestic there—it raises the interesting question of what particular problem those makeshift, available materials are meant to solve. Which is almost like asking, what is the purpose of a poem?—for which I have no real answer at this stage of my work, though I do know that whatever it is occurs inside a reader or listener. What about you?

RT: I suppose I react most strongly to the idea that my assemblies of makeshift materials are meant to solve anything! It feels somewhat like starting a poem with thought—it goes against the improvisational spirit in the making. I agree entirely that a poem is “made,” ultimately, inside the reader, so you only have so much control over its design, and its purpose. You just have to construct something sturdy and vital and lively enough to thrive in the “border terrain” between the sayable and unsayable, the writer and the reader.

One way you wrestle with the border between the sayable and unsayable, and between the writer and reader, is by translating your own poetry into Dutch. What does translation allow you to learn about your poems? Do you become more connected to the content, or detached? Are you increasingly channeling the muse or the mechanic?

SdM: There are occasional poetic revelations to translating, but I find the feeling closer to the mechanic, or the mathematician even. And I love it—the inherent conundrums feel as if they bring me right up against the sinews of the language. I make the attempt with other people’s poems as much as my own. Translation reveals the essence of a poem (in the translator’s estimation)—and it’s fascinating to learn that without the upward slant of pitch in one line, for example, or without the three-legged dog in the third stanza, the piece will no longer function.

RT: It’s exhausting to think of all the ways a poem can fall apart! That’s probably part of why I rarely write long poems. Your poems are usually shorter, too, but you’ve got an eight-pager in The Outer Wards with the sprawling title “It’s the Inner Harbour neighbourhood, but everyone calls it Skeleton Park.” The poem gathers a wide range of thoughts and observations connected to living in Kingston’s Skeleton Park (i.e. it’s got big jugaad energy).

The poem’s jugaad-ian “making do” seems tied to parenthood and how it shrinks one’s world down to this handful of repeated people, places, objects, etc. That world-shrinking is followed by another: the next poem, “Shut-In,” introduces the theme of injury and illness, which is omnipresent through the rest of The Outer Wards.

In “It’s the Inner Harbour…” you describe parenthood as “this submerged world” and note that “I know the minutes as the lichens / on the breakwater know them,” which seems like it could equally apply to the conditions that followed. Do you see connections between the two narrowings (of one’s perceptible world, of clear-headed moments, of time/capacity to write)? Did parenthood in some way prepare you for the more dramatic narrowing to come?

SdM: It’s funny and astute that you noticed the lichen line as you did, because I realize now that unlike the entire rest of the poem it came from later notes based on my experience of time during rehabilitation. One thing the two experiences had in common was that the narrowings held a depth. During those repetitive days, fairly devoid of distractions (I didn’t have a cell phone until my child was older), big things happened in the quiet of the living room, like witnessing a baby’s first amazed look at their own hand, or my own seeing of colours for the first time after much darkness.

RT: Speaking of darkness, it’s everywhere in The Outer Wards, and understandably so. In “Ancestor v. Ancestor,” which opens this interview, darkness “blinded the potatoes,” “clustered between brothers,” and “kept the cabbage leaves apart.” Did early parenthood and concussion cause you to think about darkness more deeply? Differently?

SdM: Yes, for sure, the notion of darkness changed for me, in particular during my recovery. Being in the dark was so many things at once: relieving, isolating, claustrophobic, disorienting, generative, primal. And just as questions about my first language led to a book of essays, I believe this question might only be answerable in book form or at least something book length. It remains an unformed idea for now.

RT: Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry makes multiple appearances in The Outer Wards: in an epigraph to the book, and in the closing lines to “The Roaring Alongside” (that title, too, a quote from Bishop’s poem “The Sandpiper”). And poems of yours like “Formation of a Dragonfly” mix deep attention to the natural world with in-the moment asides (“and a line of is it yellow?– / yes, bright yellow–) in a very Bishop-like way. What draws you to Bishop’s poetry, and what of her do you see present in your own writing?

SdM: It’s true, Bishop is a real presence in the book, including in “Formation of a Dragonfly” as you say. I admire her naturalist observation skills, and her unexpectedly bold surrealism, and I love the quiet, conversational, self-sharpening precision of her language. I find the permission to interrupt yourself and refine a thought—I noticed it also in the work of Bronwen Wallace—so human and intimate. The writer hasn’t reached a conclusion and told us, they’ve invited us to accompany them. I would like that to be true of my work.

On the subject of Bishop’s poetry, I highly recommend Zachariah Pickard’s Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description.

RT: On the theme of recommendations: if you could alert Canadian readers to the work of one Dutch poet—not necessarily the most famous, but someone who really speaks to you—who would it be, and why?

SdM: Ida Gerhardt! Which isn’t really fair because her work is almost untranslatable. I write of that in alfabet/alphabet because I admire her poetry so deeply; its precise, evocative, and utterly believable conflations of Gerhardt’s landscapes and inner life. I can’t recommend an English translation that I like, but I will keep working on my favourite poems of hers.

I also love the poems of J.A. der Mouw, for their domestic imagery, contemplative spirituality and self-deprecating wit. In this case there is a strong English translation, by John Irons: Full of God and tiny pancakes.

RT: What a title! Another influence on your writing seems to be your writing group, the Villanelles, who you thank in the acknowledgments of both of your new books. Can you talk a little about how that group helped you in developing the books?

SdM: The Villanelles have been together for approximately a decade now, and my writing would be nothing like it is without them. We’re currently a group of seven, and at this stage we’ve celebrated releases of poetry, short stories, children’s books, essays, novels, and more together. We workshop our drafts—usually poems, but sometimes prose as well. There’s a natural flow of honest critique and true encouragement that can happen because we trust each other. Our meetings also take the isolation out of writing. The group is one of my favourite things.

RT: Two books out in one year is no small feat—it’s very reasonable to take a break for a while! That said, you’ve already mentioned potentially writing more about darkness. Do you have any other inklings of what might come next?

SdM: Both books were several years in the making, so really their convergence is a matter of chance. Yes, I am working towards new things (though very slowly in the COVID-induced absence of school and summer camps, etc.). I’ve started a new essay collection having to do with bodies, spirits, and medicines. And some new poems that are a reckoning with mixed ancestry.

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You can relish all those years of making by picking up The Outer Wards and alfabet/alphabet at your local bookstore, or via the Vehicule Press and Palimpsest Press websites or, if you must, from Amazon.



10/17/2022

"A is for Acholi" by Ontoniya J. Okot Bitek

 




It's been six years since Otoniya J. Okot Bitek published her debut poetry collection 100 Days, which powerfully revisited the one hundred days of the Rwandan genocide. I was lucky enough to interview Otoniya shortly after that book came out - you can read that interview here. 100 Days went on to be shortlisted for the Dorothy Livesay, Pat Lowther and Robert Kroetsch awards, among others. 

I've been waiting patiently for Otoniya's next book - and I need wait no more! Her new book, A Is For Acholi, will officially be published next week. As the titled suggests, this book focuses attention on her people, the Acholi of Northern Uganda. 

A bit of a side note: Song of Lawino, the most famous work by Otoniya's father, Okot p'Bitek, was originally written in Acholi. p'Bitek opened the English translation of the book with a note that read: "Translated from the Acoli by the author who has thus clipped a bit of the eagle's wings and rendered the sharp edges of the warrior's sword rusty and blunt, and has also murdered rhythm and rhyme."

Here's an excerpt from A Is For Acholi, which shows that Otoniya's rhythm is alive and thriving:

A dictionary
for un/settling
so now I reckless I damned I candied I salt I tempered I soft I terrified I terrified I terrified they said you weren’t dead yet I terrified that that might also be true so I reckless now I given up I sullied I done they said you’re on the way back I terrified you bandied you toughness you vented you fought you kicked you beat you shouted you lied now I terrified that you’re here I terrified that you’re here & I terrified that you’re here for good

so I reckless now painting my nails only after three in the afternoon I doting on cats I watchful for new news I watchful for the bizarre the whispered the curse I dried hard I cracked I happened only in the shatter oh gather oh lean in listen listen these are only moments stacked up against atop beside each other moments beaded like necklaces moments incremental incidental instrumental sometimes dire because dream because fate because old gods pointed right not left oh gather & listen to this refuse this stance this rejection this rant assemble now poets now singers now crowd in the cords & the lyrics in the back room where you stored tune & rhythm assemble now poets singers & drummers where are the dreams where’s the tune & rhythm section

so reckless me thrown reckless me down reckless me throned to moments without you in the periphery in the distance or shadow at my door reckless me damned reckless me sinner there was never anything else offered in the clamour

The book ranges more widely than the tight thematic and stylistic focus of 100 Days. Its subject matter includes "exploring diaspora, the marginalization of the Acholi people, the dusty streets of Nairobi and the cold grey of Vancouver." Formally, the book is wide-ranging as well: lineated poems brush up against prose poems, concrete poems, erasures and - in keeping with Otoniya's 2019 chapbook Gauntlet - voluminous footnotes. 

Otoniya recently went and moved away from cold grey Vancouver (to far colder Kingston, Ontario!), but she's making a very welcome return for two events at the Vancouver Writer's Fest later this week: Poems for the Twelfth Hour on Friday, October 21st, and Poets in Conversation the following day. 

Do consider checking out the events, or picking up the book, or - gold star for you! - both.

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Otoniya J. Okot Bitek is a poet and scholar. Her collection of poetry, 100 Days, was nominated for several writing prizes including the BC Book Prize, the Pat Lowther Award, the Alberta Book Awards and the Canadian Authors Award for Poetry. It won the 2017 IndieFab Book of the Year Award for poetry and the 2017 Glenna Lushei Prize for African Poetry. From the fall of 2020 to the spring of 2021, Otoniya was the Ellen and Warren Tallman Writer-in-Residence and one of the SFU Jack and Doris Shadbolt Fellows. She has recently moved to Kingston, Ontario, to live on the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe people. Otoniya is an assistant professor of Black Creativity in Queen’s University, Kingston.

10/10/2022

"Openwork and Limestone" by Frances Boyle

  



Ottawa-based writer Frances Boyle has been busy in recent years. Since 2018 she's published four books: a novella, Tower, in 2018, followed by a second collection of poems, This White Nest, in 2019 and a short story collection, Seeking Shade, in 2020. (The latter was a finalist for the Danuta Gleed and ReLit awards.) After taking a year off to catch her breath, Frances is back with her third poetry collection, Openwork and Limestone, published by Frontenac House.

Here's a sample poem from the book:

Strange Scattered Year

I cobble together some shape like stars, 
gas cloud of spangles, sensory noise
a beautiful typeface of serifed
angels and italicized galaxies. Last year 

declines to cohere. I’m out of practice 
reaching for the shelf
to take down fragments rattling 
in their sealer jar. Bright ring

and clamouring disk with its ovoid dance
on tabletop or dark drift of space. 
Dust of that year toxic to breathe; 
I need a particulate mask to filter it. 

That year, melded by star-shine,
stuck to those before and aft, adhesion
of moist exhales. Trial and tributary, ribbon
of spilled milk. I gather it in handfuls,
sop it up, recap the static, staccato 
tumbling voices, eerie dance

of memory. The monitor dial inches 
through situations half-heard. A moving line,
a pointing finger. Evidence in star systems 
we pretend are fixed. His belt, her chair.
Try to slake my thirst with what, I believe,
is a firm grip on the ladle’s hilt.

 

"Last year declines to cohere." Goodness, yes. This poem backs up the book's jacket copy (a rarity!), which says the book "turns inward and outward at the same time, telling our multifarious collective human story so that it feels like our own intimate family history."

When someone puts out so many books, so quickly, it can seem like a sign of a sudden outburst of productivity, but is more likely the result of the slow accumulation of high quality work, which, for whatever reason, finally arrives in the hands of enthusiastic publishers. Frances suggests as much on her website: "I've been making stories since before I could hold a pen. I've written most of my life, with pauses or minimal output during years of raising a family and working in the legal field. Since being able to devote more time to my craft, my short stories and poems have been published..."

One downside to having so many books published quickly, and having them come out in and around a pandemic, is that - like, I assume, giving birth to quadruplets - it's hard to give each individual the attention it deserves.

The busyness that kept Frances from publishing most of her books until recent years was also likely tied to being steadily on the move: raised in the Prairies, she went to school in Regina, then had stops in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver before settling in Ottawa. (Sorry Maritimes, no Frances for you!) 

We're lucky to have Frances finally making a trip back to Vancouver, to celebrate not one, but two of her books (COVID having prevented her from traveling to promote Seeking Shade). She'll be joined by special guests Steffi Tad-y and Ellen McGinn for a free reading at People's Co-op Bookstore next Tuesday, October 18th at 7 PM.

Steffi Tad-y will be celebrating her own debut collection, From the Shoreline (Gordon Hill Press, 2022), and Roll of Nickels favourite Mariner Janes will be there hosting (you can read my interview with Mariner here).

Here's the poster:

I really encourage you to take in the event (a Writer's Fest worthy lineup without the $25 ticket price!), and if you can't make it, to pick up Frances' and Steffi's books.


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Frances Boyle’s previous books include the poetry collection This White Nest (Quattro Books 2019), Tower, a novella (Fish Gotta Swim Editions 2018), and Seeking Shade (The Porcupine’s Quill 2020), a short story collection which won first place for short fiction in the Miramichi Reader’s Very Best! Awards and was a finalist for the Danuta Gleed Award and a ReLit Award. Her writing has been published throughout North America and internationally. Born and raised on the prairies, Frances lives in the historic Lindenlea area of Ottawa, with her partner Tim and a large and slightly eccentric standard poodle. Openwork and Limestone is her third poetry collection.