Strangers in the wild!

Strangers is officially out there in the world and making things happen!

The book's first review came in, a very thoughtful, generous one courtesy of  Bryce Warnes and The Poetry Question. An excerpt:

“Taylor’s explorations of personal grief are masterful… Strangers is not “just” about grief, any more than grief is “just” about feeling sad. Throughout, we see connections between people in all their tangled, tangling glory, the movement of love running down the lines like electric pulses… Love is immanent, and so is everything else. In Strangers, Taylor welcomes us into his world with open arms.”

You can read the whole review here

I've been able to do two interview for the book, too - one audio and one in print. The spoken one was for Andrew French's Page Fright podcast. Andrew has been good to me in the past, interviewing me last year (just pre-pandemic) about Best Canadian Poetry 2019 and What the Poets Are Doing. This time we talked about the new book, and all sorts of other stuff: creating community during a pandemic, how I like to read a poetry book, my superhero origin story, etc.

You can listen to/download/subscribe to the podcast here.

My second interview was with Michael Edwards, who runs the Red Alder Review. Michael has also been good to me in the past, publishing a haiku of mine just this January. We talked about both Strangers and haiku a good deal in the interview, among other topics. Most pleasing for me, Michael's questions reached back over all four of my books, allowing me to take a bit of a long-view on my writing, and how its led me to this current book. 

You can give that interview a read here.

I've also been delighted to have Strangers appear in both CBC Books and 49th Shelf's Spring poetry roundups, and to see photos of the book appearing here and there on social media, the highest of these honours being Vicki "BookGaga" Ziegler handwriting a poem of mine in her journal (weighed down by the famous tiny pink dumbbell!) - a long held dream for any Canadian poet on Twitter:

I hope I'll have even more updates going forward, but this has been a tremendous start so far! We still have almost a month to go until my Strangers' online launch (feat. Luke Hathaway, Sue Sinclair and Sadiqa de Meijer) and even longer until my (hopefully possible!) in-person outdoor launches in the summer. You can learn more about those here!

If you're interested in the book, I encourage you to order a copy from your local bookstore, or on the Biblioasis website (or, ok, ChaptersAmazon, etc).


Strangers Summer Series

I'm very pleased to announce my plans for launching Strangers over the coming months. It will all kick off with an online launch on May 27th, featuring readings by Sadiqa de Meijer and Sue Sinclair, and hosted by my editor Luke Hathaway. The event will be co-hosted by Biblioasis and Massy Books, which will have books available for sale:

The online launch will *hopefully* **tentatively** ***COVID-willingly*** be followed by a series of small in-person readings in parks around the Lower Mainland, featuring guest readings by Jen Sookfong Lee, Tolu Oloruntoba, Diane Tucker, Tanja Bartel, Dallas Hunt, Shaun Robinson, Barbara Nickel and Molly Cross-Blanchard:

You can learn more about all the events, and register for them, on my website: http://roblucastaylor.com/strangerstour/

You can also RSVP for the online launch on its Facebook Event Page

I'd love to see you at any (or all???) of these events! And if you can't make any events, but are interested in getting a copy of the book, they're now available for order at your local bookstore, or on the Biblioasis website, or those other places.


intelligence has little to do with poetry

Ronald Christ: Did Eliot's work, his poetry, have any effect on your own writing?

Jorge Luis Borges: No, I don't think so.

Christ: I have been struck by certain resemblances between The Waste Land and your story "The Immortal."

Borges: Well, there may be something there, but in that case I'm quite unaware of it because he's not one of the poets I love. I should rank Yeats far above him. In fact, if you don't mind my saying so, I think Frost is a finer poet than Eliot. I mean, a finer poet. But I suppose Eliot was a far more intelligent man; however, intelligence has little to do with poetry. Poetry springs from something deeper; it's beyond intelligence. It may not even be linked with wisdom. It's a thing of its own; it has a nature of its own. Undefinable.   


- Jorge Luis Borges, from his Paris Review interview. You can read the whole thing here.


really good metaphors are always the same

Jorge Luis Borges: I remember a joke of Oscar Wilde's: a friend of his had a tie with yellow, red, and so on, in it, and Wilde said, Oh, my dear fellow, only a deaf man could wear a tie like that!

Ronald Christ: He might have been talking about the yellow necktie I have on now.

Borges: Ah, well. I remember telling that story to a lady who missed the whole point. She said, Of course, it must be because being deaf he couldn't hear what people were saying about his necktie. That might hae amused Oscar Wilde, no?

Christ: I'd like to have heard his reply to that.

Borges: Yes, of course. I never heard of such a case of something being so perfectly misunderstood. The perfection of stupidity. Of course, Wilde's remark is a witty translation of an idea; in Spanish as well as English you speak of a "loud color." A "loud color" is a common phrase, but then the things that are said in literature are always the same. What is important is the way they are said. Look at metaphors, for example: When I was a young man I was always hunting for new metaphors. Then I found out that really good metaphors are always the same. I mean you compare time to a road, death to sleeping, life to dreaming, and those are the great metaphors in literature because they correspond to something essential. If you invent metaphors, they are apt to be surprising during the fraction of a second, but they strike no deep emotion whatever. If you think of life as a dream, that is a thought, a thought that is real, or at least that most men are bound to have, no? “What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.” I think that’s better than the idea of shocking people, than finding connections between things that have never been connected before, because there is no real connection, so the whole thing is a kind of juggling.

Christ: Juggling just words?

Borges: Just words.

- Jorge Luis Borges, from his Paris Review interview. You can read the whole thing here.


difficult to explain and more difficult to earn

The alienation between original text and new language is not the problem in translation - though many assume it is. The text and the language exist and are solid. It is the translator who is alienated. Misunderstood, misjudged, the gap a translator aims to fill is impossible and problematic and common and everyday. How to move a word, an image, a phrase, from one language to another, where words and images and phrases have different resonances and etymological histories. It is also an issue of trust, thought this is difficult to explain and more difficult to earn. I have learned over the years to trust other poets to lead me into and out of the problems translation presents. When an image, a line, a rhyme won't come together, I look to other poets to see how they assemble their ideas. In this, recent English-language poet-translators are the most useful: Pound, Lowell, Christopher Middleton, Daryl Hine, Elaine Feinstein, Marilyn Hacker, Michael Hofmann, A.E. Stallings. Those who have gone beyond simple accuracy and moved the poem into a space between the original and their own, so that the translated poem becomes its own contraption.

- Evan Jones, from the afterword to his translation of C.P. Cavafy, The Barbarians Arrive Today: Poems & Prose


words are also things

In my poems, I see meaning in small details of the natural world. To see such details is a way of being human, of appreciating and understanding the world and our place in it. A poem may begin as the result of a visual image or a particular sound. In these cases, it is an image (or sound image) awaiting words. A poem may being with an observation of the aural effects of a particular word or combination of words. In this case, words await an image.

I try to combine an apprehension of what I've seen in the visual world with an expression in words that will delight or surprise in a similar manner. I attempt to express the ineffable. One is constantly surprised by the visual appearance of things in the world. Likewise is one surprised by words and language. Words, but their meanings and visual and aural aspects, lead or link, forward, backward, sideways, and inside out, to other words. Language is filled with surprises.

Part of trying to make things of the world immanent in words is having the awareness that letters of the alphabet and words, as well as being signs and symbols, are also things - they have visual shape and aural sound apart from literal meaning.

- Nelson Ball, from his afterword to Certain Details: The Poets of Nelson Ball.


not reaction at all

Donald Hall: Do you feel that younger poets in general have repudiated the experimentalism of the early poetry of this century? Few poets now seem to be resisted the way you were resisted, but some older critics like Herbert Read believe that poetry after you has been a regression to outdated modes. When you talked about Milton the second time, you spoke of the function of poetry as a retarder of change, as well as a maker of change, in language. 

T.S. Eliot: Yes, I don’t think you want a revolution every ten years. 

Hall: But is it possible to think that there has been a counterrevolution rather than an exploration of new possibilities? 

Eliot: No, I don’t see anything that looks to me like a counterrevolution. After a period of getting away from the traditional forms, comes a period of curiosity in making new experiments with traditional forms. This can produce very good work if what has happened in between has made a difference: when it’s not merely going back, but taking up an old form, which has been out of use for a time, and making something new with it. That is not counterrevolution. Nor does mere regression deserve the name. There is a tendency in some quarters to revert to Georgian scenery and sentiments; and among the public there are always people who prefer mediocrity, and when they get it, say, “What a relief! Here’s some real poetry again.” And there are also people who like poetry to be modern but for whom the really creative stuff is too strong—they need something diluted. 

What seems to me the best of what I’ve seen in young poets is not reaction at all. I’m not going to mention any names, for I don’t like to make public judgments about younger poets. The best stuff is a further development of a less revolutionary character than what appeared in earlier years of the century.

- T.S. Eliot, from his Paris Review interview. You can read the whole thing here.


it has prevented me from writing too much

Donald Hall: Do you think that the optimal career for a poet would involve no work at all but writing and reading? 

T.S. Eliot: No, I think that would be... —but there again one can only talk about oneself. It is very dangerous to give an optimal career for everybody, but I feel quite sure that if I’d started by having independent means, if I hadn’t had to bother about earning a living and could have given all my time to poetry, it would have had a deadening influence on me. 

Hall: Why? 

Eliot: I think that for me it’s been very useful to exercise other activities, such as working in a bank, or publishing even. And I think also that the difficulty of not having as much time as I would like has given me a greater pressure of concentration. I mean it has prevented me from writing too much. The danger, as a rule, of having nothing else to do is that one might write too much rather than concentrating and perfecting smaller amounts. That would be my danger.

- T.S. Eliot, from his Paris Review interview. You can read the whole thing here


work is the only device I know of

Pati Hill: What did you first write? 

Truman Capote: Short stories. And my more unswerving ambitions still revolve around this form. When seriously explored, the short story seems to me the most difficult and disciplining form of prose writing extant. Whatever control and technique I may have I owe entirely to my training in this medium. 

PH: What do you mean exactly by “control”? 

TC: I mean maintaining a stylistic and emotional upper hand over your material. Call it precious and go to hell, but I believe a story can be wrecked by a faulty rhythm in a sentence—especially if it occurs toward the end—or a mistake in paragraphing, even punctuation. Henry James is the maestro of the semicolon. Hemingway is a first-rate paragrapher. From the point of view of ear, Virginia Woolf never wrote a bad sentence. I don’t mean to imply that I successfully practice what I preach. I try, that’s all. 

PH: How does one arrive at short-story technique? 

TC: Since each story presents its own technical problems, obviously one can’t generalize about them on a two-times-two-equals-four basis. Finding the right form for your story is simply to realize the most natural way of telling the story. The test of whether or not a writer has divined the natural shape of his story is just this: after reading it, can you imagine it differently, or does it silence your imagination and seem to you absolute and final? As an orange is final. As an orange is something nature has made just right. 

PH: Are there devices one can use in improving one’s technique? 

TC: Work is the only device I know of. Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade, just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself. Even Joyce, our most extreme disregarder, was a superb craftsman; he could write Ulysses because he could write Dubliners. Too many writers seem to consider the writing of short stories as a kind of finger exercise. Well, in such cases, it is certainly only their fingers they are exercising.


- Truman Capote, from his Paris Review interview. You can read the whole thing here


you have to make a bet

Michael Edwards: Poet Sharon Olds has talked about “being brave” in poems. Does this resonate with you in any way? The sense of being more brave on the page, than in everyday life? 

Kayla Czaga: Always with a poem I believe something must be at stake. Like in poker, you have to make a bet in order to have a chance at winning. When the bet is larger, you have the chance of winning more. There’s a natural bravery involved. If I try to capture a moment, if it feels necessary to do that, I run the risk of not doing it justice, of failing, of losing my shirt, my car and my house. Coming back to a new page again and again, failing constantly, not doing my memories and the people in my life justice is tough work, but if I don’t make the bet I’ll never have the chance of winning the whole pot. 


ME: What keeps you writing poems, where do they come from for you? Are these things possible to articulate? 

KC: What keeps me writing is the part I can’t articulate. Though I have more skills as a poet now than I did a decade ago, I still can’t plan a good poem. Every time, it feels like a miracle to write one. And that feeling never gets old. It’ll always be magical. To some extent I can encourage my process through reading, routine, and exercise, but there’s still no formula, no predictability.

- Kayla Czaga, in conversation with Michael Edwards over at Red Alder Review. You can read the whole thing here


My Read Local BC Interview Series is back!

Like in each of the last two years, things have been quiet here on the blog, as I am busily preparing for a deluge of interviews (8!) over Read Local BC. Starting tomorrow (April 1st - not a joke!), a new interview between me and a BC poet will go up on their site every Tuesday and Thursday all month long, culminating in a special ninth posting at the end of the month.

I can't thank Read Local BC enough for the space and support they've provided for this project over the last three years. It's an immense amount of work (I start the interviews in September), but I love doing it, and love having a partner who believes in championing BC poets as much as I do (and tolerates unreasonably long interviews!).

To show you how serious we are about this, the good folk at Read Local BC have made not one, but TWO promotional graphics for this year's edition:

All of the interviews will eventually make their way over to this here blog, to join the 70+ interviews currently on this blog (you can read all of my Read Local BC interviews from past years here). But if you like your interviews hot and fresh (and who likes cold, soggy interviews?) keep an eye on ReadLocalBC.ca, and the Read Local BC "#NPM2021" hashtag, all month long!


it’s never one poem that changes me

The revelations I get from reading poetry are so tiny and inward. It’s never one poem that changes me. For instance, I looked at Pam Rehm’s poems for a number of years and had very little response. I’d call her my favourite poet now. But it was not something that I recognized for a long time. It’s like falling in love, but in an arranged marriage over many years. Strangely, while writing my own poems, I’ve usually had to have one of her books in my hands. And this was going on long before I liked her poems. I was dependent on the tactility of that book just to write my own stuff. Could I have acquired a taste for her poems through my hands? (Now I’m thinking about Oliver Sacks.) What’s certainly true however: I spend significantly more time with books of poetry that are easy to tote, hold and to flip through than ones that aren’t. If I had larger hands, it’s very possible that I’d love other poets.

- Emily Tristan Jones, in conversation with The LeHave Review, which profiles one poem/poet each season. You can read the whole thing here


more than one thing happening at one time

The problem of emotion in poetry is twofold: 1) Direct statements of feeling, with notable exceptions, generally fail to elicit that feeling in the reader. People who talk about their feelings all the time are tedious and so are poems with similar inclinations. 2) Unalloyed emotions - pure grief, pure terror, pure joy - don't tend to be very interesting written down. They're pre-verbal, they activate primitive brain regions too far from our language centres. They either write white or purple. The most authentic and the most poignant emotions tend to be the mixed ones, and mixed feelings defy articulation because there's more than one thing happening at one time. Which is the same thing language does in a poem. So there's a kind of black magic involved in trying to write something that instills emotion in the reader. Shortcuts are always tempting, but they almost never get you where you want to be.


- Zachariah Wells, from his interview with Jesse Eckerlin entitled "Deep Time, Black Magic and Ugly Stuff", as published in Wells' Career Limiting Moves: Interviews, Rejoinders, Essays, Reviews. 


wrestling chaos into music

The present can definitely “deform” the past in the sense of blurring it, making it formless, but also the present can warp the past, I think, by objectifying and decontextualizing it. Poetry’s artifice objectifies, too—things like rhyme and meter do—by introducing tidy patterns of organization. Paul Fussell says the first way meter means, for example, is by reminding us that someone is out there, wrestling chaos into music.

- Allison Adair, in interview with the The LaHave Review, which profiles one poem/poet each season. You can read the whole thing here.


truthful and selfish

In my earlier poetry I was really fixated on the reader’s experience of my poem, not whether it felt honest to me. As soon as I started being truthful and, frankly, selfish, that’s when the poems started feeling important. And I needed to let go of the control that I thought was necessary to have over a poem. I learned to let my instincts lead, and trust that all the reading and studying had built enough of a framework of knowledge in me that the poetic merit would show through on its own.

- Molly Cross-Blanchard, in conversation with Manahil Bandukwala about Molly's debut collection, Exhibitionist, over at Canthius. You can read the whole thing here.


be intensely themselves and remain themselves

rob mclennan: What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be? 
stephanie roberts: My answer is paradoxical. The writer shouldn't give a fuck about their role in culture, and their role is vital. The role of the poet is to, as much as possible, be themselves intensely and remain themselves. Not to say who we are is static. I think the healthy psyche is subject to the same pressures [as] on a caterpillar to become butterfly. 
Wallace Stevens believed that poetry achieves more for the knowledge of human nature than history. In an essay on poetry and the imagination, he looked to Swiss historian Jakob Burckhardt for affirmation, "Burckhardt considers the status of poetry at various epochs, among various peoples and classes, asking each time who is singing or writing, and for whom. Poetry is the voice of religion, prophecy, mythology, history, national life and inexplicably, for [Burckhardt], of literature." I tend to agree. 

 - stephanie roberts, in reply to rob mclennan's 12 or 21 questions over on his blog. You can read the whole thing here.


great literature keeps on freeing minds to do other things

When I first became aware of the exhilarations of poetry as a community college freshman on the Mojave Desert, the poets who moved me were immaculately remote from my world. That was one of their attractions: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Jesuit priest, so incantatory I could barely understand him; John Donne, priest again, even earlier in the British lineage, and glorious crafter of something called c o n c e i t s. 
Lots of British priests in the poetry business, it looked like. Plus Emily Dickinson. I loved the strenuousness of it all, the rigors, the long lonely vigil of it, the doomed quality. Here, I thought, is fit meat for the mind. And the fact was that my mind was very hungry. Hungry minds — the selfish, burrowing, opportunistic minds of the young who will rip the flesh off anything that might feed them — these are the salvation of writers. I often think about this, how the readers who keep writing alive are comically self-serving; they are trying to find access to their own brains, some way in, some key to make their own heads work. They rummage and plunder with catholic zeal, accidentally performing a service to culture that no number of academics or disinterested readers could accomplish. They have demonstrated one more time how great literature keeps on freeing minds to do other things. 

 - Kay Ryan, from her essay "Fit Meat for a Hungry Mind" over at the Pulitzer Prize's website. The essay is also collected, as "Against Influence", in Synthesizing Gravity: Selected Prose. You can read the whole essay here.


poetry is the shape and size of the mind

A poem really has no beginning and end, although it does appear to. All the parts of a poem exist as a sort of plasma, simultaneously apprehended, existing in the mind all at once, as soon as we have become familiar with them. The word “blight” [in "Spring and Fall"] constantly and forever charges every word in the poem, shores every word in the poem. It is Indra’s net, everywhere is the center, reflecting all. This great capacity of poetry is seldom so well exercised as it is here. The fact that the mind can move around in a poem—is asked to do this—is why poetry is considered the supreme art. Poetry is the shape and size of the mind. It works the way the mind works. It is deeply compatible with whatever it is we are. We dissolve in it; it dissolves in us. 

- Kay Ryan, discussing Gerard Manley Hopkins' "Spring and Fall", from her essay "On a Poem by Hopkins" in Synthesizing Gravity: Selected Prose. You can read the whole essay here.


a poem means you're in too deep

Peppering [Robert Frost's] notebooks is the phrase "Dark Darker Darkest" standing alone, as though it were a code for something he kept working at in his mind. (The editor offers some context for it, but this doesn't explain away its perseverance.) On one occasion Frost does begin developing what he means—venturing well past the usual sparring tenor of the notebooks and touching the dangerously marshy places usually reserved for his best poems: 

Here where we are life wells up as a strong . . . spring perpetually . . . piling water on water . . . with the dancing high lights upon it. But it flows away on all sides as into a marsh of its own making. It flows away into poverty into insanity into crime. . . . Dark as it is that there are these sorrows and darker still that we can do so little to get rid of them . . . the darkest is that perhaps we ought not to want to get rid of them. . . . What life . . . craves most is signs of life. 

In Frost's poetry, of course, this flowing away and draining off of original strength is a deep, repeated thought (and fear). Think of how everything golden "goes down" in "Nothing Gold Can Stay," or even better think of Frost's dazzling and diabolical poem, "Spring Pools," where dark powers "blot out and drink up and sweep away" the freshets of life. Such a rare patch of deep probing in the notebooks, ending in a pronouncement ("What life . . . craves most is signs of life"), lets us see the greater genius of his poems. In the notebooks, Frost moves quickly to the abstract; in the poems, he steers clear of the abstract altogether and instead overloads nature until dark stuff drips out the bottom. Frost is riveting, prose or poetry, but in the poetry the rivets rust through. A poem by its nature operates beyond rational control, which is a great service to a mind as controlling as Frost's. A poem means you're in too deep. In "Spring Pools," for all its balanced, reflected imagery of pools and flowers and all its tidy buttoned-up rhyming, Frost has got himself just where he craves to be—in an elemental battle where he's not the boss. The best form can do is serve as a barricade, giving the illusion of containment to the forces he's unleashed.


- Kay Ryan, from her review of The Notebooks of Robert Frost, originally published in Poetry Magazine and included in her essay collection Synthesizing Gravity: Selected Prose. You can read the whole review here.


the memory that might result from repetition

I don’t think I can speak at sufficient length about the importance to the poet of avoiding or ignoring Kodak moments. If a poet seeks to make or keep memories, how will she ever know which ones contain true power, which would assert themselves on their own? Perhaps her very definition of memory would change if she didn’t get her Kodak moments developed. Maybe memory would not hold individual scenes at all; maybe it would have no detail; maybe it would not rise up—the pines of that morning in Yosemite scraping the interior of her skull; maybe it would be nacreous, layered regions of pleasure and attraction in the mind. Any sense of tint in the depth of the gleam would arise so slowly as to be imperceptible. I am speaking of the memory that might result from repetition. I am interested in the long ways of knowing where the mind does not seek strangeness. We must be less in love with foreground if we want to see far.


- Kay Ryan, from her essay "Notes on the Danger of Notebooks", originally published in Parnassus Review and included in her essay collection Synthesizing Gravity: Selected Prose. You can read the whole essay here.


the humility necessary to listen

After a certain lecture which had as usual bewildered the sober note-takers (the serious people laboring to understand by writing parts down, making decisions about what was important to write down and what wasn’t, seeking a pattern in what was said, attempting to get a fix on it—determining its coordinates like an alien craft’s) a photographer came up to [Gertrude] Stein. He was elated, ravished by what she had been saying. It was no trouble for him to understand as it was for the audience which had come with the intention of understanding rather than with the intention of taking pictures for the local newspaper. His ease was no surprise to Gertrude Stein. The photographer had simply listened and therefore he had understood, since what Gertrude Stein was saying was always simple, plus she repeated it. The serious note-takers couldn’t listen and therefore couldn’t understand because they were trying to remember.

The serious note-takers intended to make sense later of what Gertrude Stein was saying, so they needed to remember the main points of her lecture. They would not have been pleased with the idea that they didn’t have to go back to their offices and make sense of it because it already was sense. One might say that they lacked the humility necessary to listen. One might observe that, paradoxically, what appeared to be submissive behavior on the part of the note-takers, taking notes, was in fact arrogance.

But of course the serious note-takers were not worse people than the photographer. The photographer’s humility was no more intentional than the note-takers’ arrogance. The humility necessary to listen cannot be achieved head-on, and that is what gave the photographer his edge. He was partly thinking about getting good photographs—about his equipment, about the lighting. He didn’t have to concern himself with these professional things very much because they were almost automatic, but a little. This slight distraction, this slight angle that his job as photographer required, along with the feeling that he was not a professional in the area that Gertrude Stein was talking about, made him more open to what she was saying. He wasn’t going to have to summarize her remarks or offer an evaluation. He was just the newspaper photographer.

Isn’t it odd to think that in order to listen we must be a little bit relieved of the intention to understand?


- Kay Ryan, from her essay "Notes on the Danger of Notebooks", originally published in Parnassus Review and included in her essay collection Synthesizing Gravity: Selected Prose. You can read the whole essay here.


visited but not carried away

Experience has proven that it is impossible to give away secrets. Even when I write them down as clearly as I can, people seem to receive another secret, which is secret from me. I like that. And that's not all: my own secrets can become secret from me again. Which is to say, having exposed them as best I can - in a poem, say - the secrets remain there, to be visited but not carried away. Is it as though I had never whispered them, I am so little changed by what the poem knows. 

 - Kay Ryan, from her essay "Derichment" in Synthesising Gravity: Selected Prose.


far greater difficulties

Poetry is superior amusement. I do not mean an amusement for superior people. I call it an amusement, an amusement pour distraire les honnêtes gens, not because that is a true definition, but because if you call it anything else you are likely to call it something still more false. If we think of the nature of amusement, then poetry is not amusing; but if we think of anything else that poetry may seem to be, we are led into far greater difficulties. 

 - T.S. Eliot, from his essay collection The Sacred Wood.


a matter of syntax

[Kay] Ryan has forged—no other verb will do, for it has taken great patience and will—a style of art that is also a style of life. Such strong economy comes with limitations, of course, but the compensations are immense. It is a style capable of withstanding great pressure. It repels all manner of cant, gush, and less-than-exquisite gloom. Sometimes just a drop of it serves as a kind of existential smelling salts: "She gives us poems in shapes that might result in a chamber free of the heart’s gravity." It’s not a fashionable notion. That limits liberate, that there can be in some forms of refusal the greatest freedom (another crucial word for Ryan’s aesthetic), that all life’s troubles and treasures might be—I think of Julian of Norwich suddenly seeing all of creation in a single hazelnut—a matter of syntax. 

 - Christian Wiman, from his introduction to Synthesizing Gravity: Selected Prose by Kay Ryan.


perhaps we may be allowed at least one mansion

I am aware and most grateful for the benefits of the age. No matter what complaints we may have, Japan has chosen to follow the West, and there is nothing for her to do but move bravely ahead and leave us old ones behind... I have written all this because I have thought that there might still be somewhere, possibly in literature or the arts, where something could be saved. I would call back at least for literature this world of shadows we are losing. In the mansion called literature I would have the eaves deep and the walls dark, I would push back into the shadows the things that come forward too clearly, I would strip away the useless decoration. I do not ask that this be done everywhere, but perhaps we may be allowed at least one mansion where we can turn off the electric lights and see what it is like without them. 

- Jun'ichirō Tanizaki, from his 1933 essay on Japanese aesthetics In Praise of Shadows (trans. Thomas J. Harper and Edward F. Seidensticker).


how poems finally have to live

Some of these journals I’ve had dealings with for decades. Slow dealings, sending off poems in the mail, waiting for a reply. By the time I’d get my poems back (usually all of them) they would look new to me. I could see them in a new way, maybe like children getting off the bus from their first day of school. They’d been somewhere where they had to fend for themselves. You could get a new respect for them, and also you could think to yourself, How could I have sent them off looking like that?

In any case, it was a distant, silent relationship with these presses and journals. I wanted something from them, but I had to count on the words I’d put on the page to get it for me. Whether or not I started out liking the patient discipline of this exchange, I came to like it. It slowed me down. If I’d gotten those poems back at email speed, say, they wouldn’t have been away long enough for me to lose hope the way you need to. You really shouldn’t be living for a reaction all the time.

I also liked the fact that there were no faces or voices; we were all disembodied, writer and editor alike. Just the slow old mail. I wanted my poems to fight their way like that. Fight and fight again. No networking, no friends in high places, no internships. I think that’s how poems finally have to live, alone without your help, so they should get used to it.
- Kay Ryan, on the joyful process of acquiring a rejection letter, from her essay "I Go To AWP" in Poetry Magazine on attending the 2005 Associaion of Writers & Writing Programs conference in Vancouver. The essay is included in Ryan's Synthesising Gravity: Selected Prose. You can read the whole essay here.


you have to defend before it looks like you have anything to defend

I was invited to attend [AWP] as an outsider, and to write a piece for Poetry. I could go but retain my alienation. This was so doable. Of course, in truth I could only do this now, when I am quite old. If I were young and hadn’t published anything, it would be different. Now, even if my sense of self is threatened, shouldn’t I already have used most of it up? How much more can there be left? Maybe I would never have been influenced, as I feared I would, but to this day I believe I needed to guard against something, even if that something was imaginary. I needed to protect something valuable. The most important thing a beginning writer may have going for her is her bone-deep impulse to defend a self that at the time might not look all that worth getting worked up about. You’ll note a feral protectiveness—a wariness, a mistrust. But the important point is that this mistrust is the outside of the place that has to be kept empty for the slow development of self-trust. You have to defend before it looks like you have anything to defend. But if you don’t do it too early, it’s too late. One must truly HOLD A SPACE for oneself. All things conspire to close up this space. Everything about AWP has always struck me as closing the space.
- Kay Ryan, from her utterly delightful essay "I Go To AWP" in Poetry Magazine on attending the 2005 Associaion of Writers & Writing Programs conference in Vancouver. The essay is included in Ryan's Synthesising Gravity: Selected Prose. You can read the whole essay here.


a choice between honouring the word or the spirit

Most of the trouble in this business stems from a failure to articulate the project and communicate that explicitly to the reader - or the reader's willful or inept misinterpretation of that project. If a translation is read as a version, or a version as a translation, the result is disappointment and confusion. Translations fail when they misrepresent the language of the original, or fail to honour the rules of natural syntax. Versions fail when they misrepresent the spirit of the original, or fail in any one of the thousand other ways bad poems fail. If, through naivety or over-ambition, both translation and version are attempted simultaneously, the result is foredoomed. Essentially, if we are not prepared to make a choice between honouring the word or the spirit, we are likely to come away with nothing. Or, perhaps, between method and goal: in translation, the integrity of the means justifies the end; in the version, the integrity of the end justifies the means.

- Don Paterson, on translation, in Note #10 of his "Appendix: Fourteen Notes on The Version" in Orpheus: A Version of Rilke (Faber and Faber, 2006). 


no ghosts, no gods

There are no ghosts, no gods, nothing secretly lurking in the temple of the poem whose vengeful wrath we will incur through our failure to honour it. The author and the critic might reasonably scream travesty, but they aren't in the poem either. Any faith in anything is misplaced, and masks an essentialist creed. A 'faithful' translation requires an original, a translation and an essence. A poem has no essence. (It has a spirit, but this is utterly subjective and unfixable.) Trust, on the other hand, requires only two terms. So while faithful is an impossible judgement, our versions might nonetheless be subjectively reckoned to be trustworthy. The original poem has a consensually agreed paraphrasable sense, and a consensually agreed unparaphrasable sense. We translate the former and imitate the latter.

 - Don Paterson, on translation, in Note #8 of his "Appendix: Fourteen Notes on The Version" in Orpheus: A Version of Rilke (Faber and Faber, 2006). 


reinvigorating a set of ambitions and capacities

Back in the early 2000s, when surfing the Internet was still, for me at least, somewhat new, I wrote a long fragmented poem that employed shifting (and disappearing) points of view. I drew from a number of poetic forebears, but it was the Internet that really unsettled my relationship to diction, anonymity, history, space and time.

In a poem, association often gets you from one place to another, an image that triggers a radical shift in context or tone. And it is association that governs our experience of navigating the Web. Think of the huge leaps we take, the strange paths we wander by simply following a string of links. Everything that happens in a poem is governed by some kind of compression, but I suspect that narrative in poems is at once bigger and stranger, and more tightly compressed, than it was a generation ago. Then I remember “The Waste Land,” and I begin to feel that the Internet has simply succeeded in reinvigorating a set of ambitions and capacities that have been available to poets for a very long time.

- Tracy K. Smith, talking about how the internet has changed writing, in a 2013 "Writing Bytes" over at The New York Times. You can read the whole thing here.

Thank you to Matthew Zapruder's Why Poetry?, where I first encountered this quote.


bringing that seeing into language

The idea of a poetry of minimal surface texture, with its complexities hidden at the bottom of the pool, under the bank, a dark and old lurking, no fancy flavor, is ancient. It is what is "haunting" in the best of Scottish and English ballads and is at the heart of the Chinese shi (lyric) aesthetic. Du Fu said, "The ideas of a poet should be noble and simple." Zen says, "Unformed people delight in the gaudy, and in novelty. Cooked people delight in the ordinary."

There are poets who claim that their poems are made to show the world through the prism of language. Their project is worthy. There is also the work of seeing the world without any prism of language, and to bring that seeing into language. The latter has been the direction of most Chinese and Japanese poetry.

- Gary Snyder, from the afterword to Rip Rap and Cold Mountain Poems.


I've been saying "doubt" when I mean "play"

Mandy Grathwohl: "Enjoyability can't be the only goal of literature"—would you expand on this?

Richard Siken: Sometimes I wonder if I've wasted my life. I know I'm not alone in this. The other night, I overheard someone else say it: I've wasted my life. The response they got? There's no right way to do it. It was a comforting thing to hear. I think it's the same with writing: there's no right way to do it. I already know what I have to say and how I would say it. I want to hear other voices, other versions. It's not enough to know your three favorite desserts. It's not enough to know your seventh favorite dessert. We should be confronted with things we never considered putting in our mouths.

And enjoyability can't be the only goal of life, either. My mom just went into hospice. She's dying. I don't like the feelings that I'm feeling—sadness, anger, fear, relief, guilt—they're contradictory, and sometimes they overlap. It's confusing, sometimes paralyzing, and certainly not enjoyable. The options are: pay attention or don't.

I feel like there's more to say about it. I feel like I should be able to explain, for pages, with certainty, but I can't. I come from a place of doubt. I think doubt informs my poetry, my editorial style, and my discomfort with the cultural moment. I feel like we're being encouraged to become righteous and absolute in our convictions. I don't see how there can be any room for compassion or development if we abandon our doubt.

Grathwohl: What is your relationship with the concept of doubt?

Siken: Doubt is fundamental to any sense of playfulness or experimentation. We could call it uncertainty. If I climb that tree, will I be able to see the river? If I put bacon in it, will it be better? Is this form the best choice for the poem? Doubt allows us the freedom to paint without blueprints, or start a poem without knowing how it will end. Fear can make us forget about play. It's important to defend yourself, it's important to make calls during business hours, but play is a sideways thinking that solves problems linear thinking can't. We're living in a moment of great and necessary advocacy. We shouldn't, we can't, abandon our advocacy, but there has to be room for not-knowing. Not-knowing is the energetic force that propels invention and discovery. I don't mind being afraid for real reasons, but I wonder if we're diminishing and weaponizing ourselves against a vague and pervasive gloom. I've been saying "anxiety" when I mean "excitement." I've been saying "doubt" when I mean "play." This is a sloppiness I'm not happy with. It's a fundamental struggle, keeping our engines clean, recalibrating, but we have to do it. It makes no sense to limit our strategies when facing such important work.

- Richard Siken, in conversation with Mandy Grathwohl over at The Matador Review. You can read the whole thing here.


a violence from within that protects us from a violence without

The poet refuses to allow his task to be set for him. He denies that he has a task and considers that the organization of materia poetica is a contradiction in terms. Yet the imagination gives to everything that it touches a peculiarity, and it seems to me that the peculiarity of the imagination is nobility, of which there are many degrees. This inherent nobility is the natural source of another, which our extremely head-strong generation regards as false and decadent. I mean that nobility which is our spiritual height and depth; and while I know how difficult it is to express it, nevertheless I am bound to give a sense of it. Nothing could be more evasive and inaccessible. Nothing distorts itself and seeks disguise more quickly. There is a shame of disclosing it and in its definite presentations a horror of it. But there it is. The fact that it is there is what makes it possible to invite to the reading and writing of poetry men of intelligence and desire for life. I am not thinking of the ethical or the sonorous or at all of the manner of it. The manner of it is, in fact, its difficulty, which each man must feel each day differently, for himself.


It is hard to think of a thing more out of time than nobility. Looked at plainly it seems false and dead and ugly. To look at it at all makes us realize sharply that in our present, in the presence of our reality, the past looks false and is, therefore, dead and is, therefore, ugly; and we turn away from it as from something repulsive and particularly from the characteristic that it has a way of assuming: something that was noble in its day, grandeur that was, the rhetorical once. But as a wave is a force and not the water of which it is composed, which is never the same, so nobility is a force and not the manifestations of which it is composed, which are never the same. Possibly this description of it as a force will do more than anything else I can have said about it to reconcile you to it. It is not an artifice that the mind has added to human nature. The mind has added nothing to human nature. It is a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality. It seems, in the last analysis, to have something to do with our self-preservation; and that, no doubt, is why the expression of it, the sound of its words, helps us to live our lives.

- Wallace Stevens, from his essay "The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words". You can read the whole thing here (starting on page 87).


to sing as a human is not to sing as a bird sings

I'd summarise the informing insight of the Sonnets [to Orpheus] as follows. Man is probably unique amongst the mammals in that he has a conscious foreknowledge of his own death. Knowing he will die means he acts, in part, as if he were already dead, already historical - having conducted the imaginative exercise so often it is engraved on his mind by the time he is five or six years old. From a young age, then, this knowledge consciously or unconsciously leads the future-producing mechanism of his mind to construct his life as an authentic and intelligible narrative - i.e one possessive of meaning, one whose meaning he can overview, and one whose meaning will survive his physical death. He has become so accustomed to living in death's shadow that it is wholly natural for him to do so; he barely notices that, while contingency and fate might shape his life, it is death that drives its plot. Like Orpheus, he too has descended to the land of the shades, and then done what no beast has until now had the permission to do: return to the living present. His condition is therefore existentially transgressive (another factor that feeds into his great capacity for self-loathing), but his ghosthood status - his ability to send his mind ahead of him, flying through walls, through skin and fur, over interstellar distances, into alien elements - informs his behaviour in positive ways too: for one thing, he is the only animals capable of imaginative empathy with any other species, and for all his monstrous rapacity, perhaps the first Earth has known that can operate against the Darwinian imperative of blind self-interest. Nonetheless his condition is more riven than dual, and more than one philosopher has described human consciousness as a crime against nature.

Rilke had a vision of Orpheus as the ideal resolution of this potentially intolerable schism. Orpheus was a man who had found the perfect balance between death and life, eternity and the living present, by singing across the gap and inhabiting both at once. The Sonnets imply that how well a man or woman deals with their twin citizenship determines the degree of their authenticity; and in Orpheus, Rilke sees the ideal possessor of the 'double realm.' He knows that the answer is to live in the heart of the paradox itself, to form a stereoscopic view of the world with one eye in the land of the living and one eye in the land of the dead, in the breathing present and in atemporal eternity. 'But he can raise the dead / and conjugated through his half-transparent lids / confuses their dark land in everything.'

Both evidence and celebration of this state of ghosthood is our singing. To sing as a human is not to sing as birds sing; as birds sing, humans talk. For a human, to sing is to do something unique and with no analogue in other species. It is to unite the discrete quanta of passing time through music and lyric. These things offer a stay against time's passing. Music weaves a line through the discontinuous present (we now have some proof that our brains appear to measure out time in three-second sections - approximately to the default human line-length of poetry, being the perfect 'mnemonic slot'); lyric unites the time-based events of our words by recalling them back into the presence of one another through the repetition of their sounds. By continually returning us to the previous moment, the lyre cheats that time which carries us to our deaths, and insists that time also has a cyclical aspect. 'Is there really such thing as time-the-destroyer?' The endless river rolls on, but through song we can row against the current and arrest, for a little while, our own progress. Time is a little collapsed into no-time, and we lose some sense of its passing; through the song, we are reunited with our truest state of being, that of serene ghosthood.


- Don Paterson, in his Afterword to Orpheus: A Version of Rilke (Faber and Faber, 2006). 


just read

Manahil Bandukwala: Writing and organizing also involves a lot of blocks and struggles. Do you have any advice to share on tackling those blocks?

Isabella Wang: I don’t know if I have any advice on how to overcome writer’s block per se, as I feel like if there was some strategy, everyone would be doing it. The body and mind, like all other natural processes on earth, are limited: they take time to regulate, renew. It’s just that over time, you learn to trust yourself more, that the writing will come eventually, and not worry about it as much when months have gone by with still no poems in sight. Still, I always find it helpful to read lots. When you feel blocked, that’s usually room for growth: you’ve reached the limits of your current capacity and are looking for more. It’s perfectly alright to go through long periods of time without writing anything, and just read.

- Isabella Wang, in conversation with Manahil Bandukwala over at Canthius. You can read the whole thing here.


the colour seven smells like honesty

rob mclennan: Where does a poem usually begin for you?

Douglas Walbourne-Gough: Some poems come from witnessing (“Weight”), others come from dreams, or from lived experience (“Trouting” or “The Sea is Always Happy”). Some come from fear and social anxieties/realities. Poetry is just the one way of expression that makes sense to me. The fireworks web of immediate, simultaneous and connected reactions I have to an event or pressure needs me to be able to tell you that the colour seven smells like honesty. Poetry lets me come close to that. Someday I think I’d like to try painting these things out as well.

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


holding on to laughter like a shield

Souvankham Thammavongsa: Laughter is very important to me. The cornerstone of all these stories is laughter. To me, laughter isn’t frivolous. It is a way of surviving. Laughter when things are horribly unbearable. Laughter when things are uncomfortable. Laughter when there is nothing else to feel. Also when there is joy, too. You have to laugh because that’s how you take back your power. Deriving humor from pain, and allowing the two to coexist within a single moment, has been integral to my experience of being an immigrant. 

Cornelia Channing: In “Edge of the World,” a Lao man describes how, whenever he is told to do something at work, he responds, “Yes, sir!” but he says it with the tone and force of a “Fuck you!” It’s a really funny little moment. In this instance, the humor seems to be unlocking something—a kind of reclaimed power or space for resistance, perhaps. 

Thammavongsa: Yes, yes, exactly. So that moment is meant to be funny but it’s also an inversion. He has taken his position of subservience and flipped it on its head. A phrase that is an expression of polite obedience becomes a private expression of defiance. The laughter is almost like a weapon or a tool. 

Channing: Can you say more about that? 

Thammavongsa: You know, I’m a huge fan of Richard Pryor and if you watch the way he talks about his family, about the way he grew up and about his mother and some very difficult subjects, the way he frames them in humor is really interesting and powerful. He makes the audience laugh and then he holds onto that laughter like a shield so that the experiences he’s talking about can’t destroy him. I think I’m trying to do something similar.

- Souvankham Thammavongsa, in conversation with Cornelia Channing over at The Paris Review. You can read the whole thing here.


a constructed conversation on the frontier of dreaming

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


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

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

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


lighting it as an attempt

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

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

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


"Strangers" is on its way in 2021!

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

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

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

From the book's jacket cover:

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

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

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

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

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