you have to face your excuse

Michael Dumanis: Do you think there’s something to the idea that form inherently functions differently for some writers because of race and background?

Jericho Brown: You know, the 18th-century poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America” by Phillis Wheatley is I think her most famous and most quoted because it allows her to subvert discourse on race in a way that feels subversive even now. There’s a moment in that poem where she expresses gratitude for Christian missions to enslaved Africans, arguing that the reason Africa needs to be under the thumb of Europe and under the thumb of the white Americans is that when we get to Heaven, now that we have become Christian, everybody’s gonna get to be together. All the black people and all the white people are gonna hang out together. And there’s a way that no one white on Earth had really thought about that or would have wanted that at that time.

I think this idea that form functions differently is definitely the case for somebody like Gwendolyn Brooks, though not for somebody like Langston Hughes, which is why Hughes is interested in inventing a form, or taking something outside poetry that the folk are already using and making it into a form, as opposed to using a traditional form himself. But I do think that somebody like Brooks, and people like Countee Cullen and Claude McKay, 100% Claude McKay, are interested in what happens when you put the black body inside the sonnet. When I make formal the black body, it is still a black body and you will still be offended by its presence. But then you have to face your excuse. So there’s a way that you have to deal, as in the Phillis Wheatley poem, where the black body says, I’m enslaved because I’m a savage and you’re going to Christianize me. But then, once I tell you I’m a Christian and I’m going to Heaven with you and we’ll hang out there together, you then have to be faced with your excuse. You’ve made an excuse for your evil, and now you’re going to have to be faced with it, because here’s my subject-verb agreement, here’s my rhyme, here is me knowing what a pentameter line is. So, if your excuse was that I was illiterate, if your excuse was, as Thomas Jefferson says, that there’s no poetry among black people, then you have to be faced with the fact that, actually, you’re just a hater. I think there’s something much more automatically and subconsciously political going on when black people write in a form that has to do with participating in a larger culture outside, and I shouldn’t say larger, but participating with the culture that black culture circulates through and dwells within.
- Jericho Brown, in conversation with Michael Dumanis over at The Bennington Review. You can read the whole thing here.


at the mercy of the language you already know

Michael Dumanis: What do you see as the dominant modes in American poetry today?

Jericho Brown: Many more of us than before are very aware that we’re in a social and political crisis. And I think that’s led to an attraction to knowing who’s on what side, which pervades much of the poetry that I’ve been reading—that it be made clear who’s on what side, that the poem is on the right side, or that the poem is on my side. And while I think that’s important, because I think we need poems for our moment right now, of course that can also be concerning. Poems have to be complex in order to be poems, poems have to make revelations that a poet wasn’t prepared to make, and things like that might go beyond what side you’re on. A poem should go beyond what you already know, and if it’s going to go beyond what you already know, a poem might say something that begins to have you question what side you’re on, which, in turn, might begin to have an audience question what side you’re on. I’m saying all that to say that while I’m really interested in poems in the political realm, I’m also interested in precision, and not all poems call for the same type of precision. Sometimes a poem might call for a precision in emotion where it does not call for a precision in language.


I’m much more interested in a poem that is like the life we live. I want the poem that is like, “I saw that people got shot at the synagogue today, and I had a sandwich, and I miss my daughter.” And in actuality, that’s what a day in our life looks like, and the poem has to carry the tones of all those emotions. Sometimes I think that poems lately are interested at the outset in settling on an emotion, as opposed to gradually discovering several tones and seeing if those tones might accumulate into a single poem.

But I also think that part of this has to do with the fact that I am directing a creative writing program and that I am teaching and that I am teaching much more intensely than I’ve ever taught before, so I’ve been thinking about pedagogy a lot differently. I think one of the troubles of being a younger writer, of being someone who wants to write poetry, is that you put the cart before the horse. You put the ideas that you want to get to, or that you think you want to get to, before your language. If you put language first, then you can discover your ideas. But if you are thinking about your ideas, then you’re going to be at the mercy of the language you already know instead of one that you can figure out. And so maybe what I’m seeing in the writing of my students I’m ascribing to contemporary poetry at large. But I also do feel like I’ve read a ton of books in the last couple of years, and there’s a lot of knowns that I see coming through in the poetry, as opposed to unknowns that the poems discover.

- Jericho Brown, in conversation with Michael Dumanis over at The Bennington Review. You can read the whole thing here.


the best lies tell the truth

Sadye Scott-Hainchek: What has been your proudest or most rewarding moment as a poet?

Chris Bailey: I was in my mother’s kitchen with her, and she was cooking supper. It was pork chops and potatoes. This is fall on Prince Edward Island, right before I did any touring or anything, and we were at the table and the sky is clear out the west window above the sink. She read the book. She read it and it got her memory going and so she ended up telling me stories about growing up, about my siblings. Things she never really talked about before. Dad likes to talk about a lot of things and it’s usually him, if anyone, telling me stories about the past. Mom has a tendency toward the present in her storytelling. What happened today or yesterday. How my nephew’s hockey went, or cans of tuna are on sale here for this much. So for her to talk about a past I didn’t experience — a grandfather I never met, her childhood, a brother gone before I happened along, how things were in the family in simpler times — that was as much reward as it was gift.

Scott-Hainchek: Have you encountered any misconceptions about poetry that you wish people wouldn’t believe?

Bailey: There can be a belief that the poem is true to the point of documentary or the narrator is the writer. A shortened perceived distance. This isn’t a bad thing, really. I’m guilty of encouraging it and also have disliked people buying into it. If I’ve done my job right, you’ll believe everything written has happened or could’ve happened like this. The best lies sound like truth, or in some way tell the truth. Warren Zevon, talking about songwriting, said something like there’s no fiction and nonfiction sections in the music aisle. It’s the same for poetry.

- Chris Bailey, in interview with Sadye Scott-Hainchek over at The Fussy Librarian. You can read the whole thing here.


confusing research with momentum

The perennial problem I have when writing is (blissfully, intentionally) confusing the research stage with momentum. I can read and read and obsess about an idea and then catch myself months in, not having actually written a thing. Incubation is important, and I know writing doesn’t always look like actually putting words on the page, but I really need to prompt myself to actually sit down and get a draft started, rather than endlessly reading or watching documentaries. Once I get an honest-to-goodness Word document going I don’t have too much of a problem with momentum, but I do have a constant, creeping anxiety that I haven’t referenced enough source material: that I might have left out some obvious thematic conclusion, or that I haven’t explored a relevant writer’s work enough, or I don’t have enough of a grasp on, say, 5000 years of Jewish theological thought to legitimize my creative work.

- Leah Horlick, as part of "Queers, Processing: A Dialogue on Navigating Works in Progress," organized by Alex Leslie and posted on the Book*Hug Press blog. You can read the whole thing here.


In case you need a fun distraction (or 139 of them...)

Back in July, inspired by Leslie Hurtig's tweet of three book titles in emojis, I started creating "Emoji Book Title" puzzles over on Donald Trump's favourite toilet read, Twitter.com. If you're old, you call these rebus puzzles. But I'm trying to pretend I'm young, so "Emoji Book Titles" it is.

Whatever you call them, I figured some of you sensible folk who don't use Twitter might also like to play along. In the last three months, I've posted 139 rebus puzzles: Canadian poetry, fiction and non-fiction, US poetry and fiction, Nobel prize winners and even a bonus mystery round! You can give them all a read below, and you can click through to Twitter if you are curious about an answer - every one of them has been correctly guessed by someone in the replies.

It's been tricky finding ways to connect with others in the writing community during the pandemic, and playing these games has done just that. Kinda? Anyway, it's been a heck of a lot of fun. I hope you enjoy them!


porous as the body

James Lindsay: Perhaps this is an impossible question to answer, but where do you look for the voice? Does it come from within, or do you find it outside of yourself?

Phoebe Wang: The boundary between the inner and the outer is porous as the body. The inner voice is shaped by outer, historical forces - the weight of colonial policy that made English the language I mostly think in, but it’s an English inflected by a particular lack, an English spoken and sung by my Chinese parents, mixed in with Cantonese vowels. So I look for the voice of a poem among the accents and intonations, the billboards and overheard expletives, the jams and lectures that seep through the ear and the body into the poetry making machine of the mind and the spirit. An image, a few phrases will arrive and sound true. I speak them slowly, because at times the poet is a ventriloquist, and the poem a foreign language. The voice of poetry is also at times an ineluctable wordlessness, like the impulse to sip a glass of ice water, a reflex. Like jarring a sore bone, you wince, and the poem gasps out of you.

- Phoebe Wang, in conversation with James Lindsay over at Open Book. You can read the whole thing here.


no one is waiting for another book

The problem with winning an award so young is you begin to believe it has something to do with you, and it does not. People like to give out awards, but most often it has more to do with the judges’ tastes and less to do with the quality of one’s work.


When writing my second book The Cold Panes of Surfaces, a much better book than my first one, in my opinion, I opined to my friend Autumn Getty that I was having trouble writing. I felt like my next book would have to be better than Bonfires. My good friend looked at me with pity and tenderness and said as gently as possible: “No one is waiting for another book by Chris Banks”.

It shocked me at the time but it was the best writing advice I have ever been given.

- Chris Banks, from his essay "Confessions of a Prize Winning Poet" over at The Miramichi Reader. You can read the whole thing here.


you incomplete me

I think a lot of my objection to academic writing has to do with my desire for emotive writing that is speculative, and not so much about argumentation, but about emotionality and world building. I think that poetry in particular, and creative writing more generally, allows me to write in the direction not of finality but of incompleteness. I am reminded of a moment in a conversation between Fred Moten and Stefano Harney – who are two American theorists – who say that they write together so that they can incomplete one another. It’s a take on the clichรฉ, “you complete me.” What should be taken from that very moving assertion is that perhaps when we write, it’s not about a reification of individuality or a self-possessiveness, but being in concert with others who are desirous of shared objects. For me, that ‘shared objects’ is a world to come, one where queer Indigenous freedom is the reality.

- Billy-Ray Belcourt, in conversation with Sanchari Sur over at the Invisible Press blog. You can read the whole thing here.


I get up and try to follow their advice

rob mclennan: What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Lorna Goodison: The two best pieces of advice I’ve heard were given to me by my mother Doris who’d say to me whenever I told her I was off to give a reading, “Go and be yourself,” and by Jacob Lawrence, the great African American painter, who would always say to me, when I took a class with him at the School of the Art Students League in New York, “Just do the work”. Most days I get up and try to follow their advice.

- Lorna Goodison, answering rob mclennan's 12 or 20 questions over on his blog. You can read the whole thing here.


didn't feel tidy enough for prose

The parameters of mental illness, my experience of it, really craved poetry as a vessel. I knew what I knew from my memory, that imperfect source. I had impressions of what it felt like in my body and my mind. And so poetry, with its near-endless boundaries and delicate nuance, let me get at those little recollections. My experiences didn’t feel tidy enough for prose. I never understood them well enough to put them into that form, though I did take a shot at it in a personal essay for Maclean’s that you can read here. I wrote that article after the book was complete. I think writing the poems in Birding in the Glass Age of Isolation allowed me to put my perception disorder into those terms.

- Curtis LeBlanc, in conversation with Hannah Macready over at EVENT magazine. You can read more here.


the concerns rise through the language

rob mclennan: Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

Laura Matwichuk: I feel like my poems always stop working when I become too concerned with the "aboutness" of them. I should never set out to write a poem about any object or subject - it will definitely be a bad, boring poem. I think it is better when the concerns rise through the language to the surface on their own, without so much deliberateness, when I'm able to focus just on choosing each word with precision and care. I usually realize after writing 10 or 20 poems that the deep concerns tying them together are right there, I didn't have to force it.

- Laura Matwichuk, answering rob mclennan's 12 or 20 questions over on his blog. You can read the whole thing here.


the glow that conceived them

David Ishaya Osu: How long does it take you to finish a poem?

Adeeko Ibukun:One can’t be certain. Some poems already exist in a reality (that I believe is higher than me) and only seek to exist here, locating me. So I complete them faster than others. They are just there. Whole. Complete. Most other poems I struggle to complete. Words on the page are hues my poems channel to capture a glow of presence. It is complete only when the eventual image is, or a fair compromise of, that glow that conceived them. There shouldn’t be a definite timeline to complete a poem; I believe that may become too much of a burden for the writer. And because the process of writing is rigorous, you need hope to fire on, you need that inkling that the work will eventually turn out well, that all the efforts will be worth it.

- Adeeko Ibukun, in conversation with David Ishaya Osu over at The Puritan. You can read the whole thing here