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!