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!