Monday, October 23, 2017

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Forrest Roth

Forrest Roth is the author of a novella, Line and Pause (BlazeVOX Books), and a prose poem chapbook, The Sullen Pages (Little Red Leaves); and his novel Gary Oldman Is a Building You Must Walk Through will be available in October from What Books Press of Los Angeles, which was also a semi-finalist for the 2015 Noemi Press Book Contest in Fiction. His work has appeared in NOON, Denver Quarterly, Juked, Caketrain, The Collagist and many other journals. He is a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Marshall University in West Virginia.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

First book was the predictable laborious, pained affair of doing something for the first time, and was made worse by doubts about the material I had, most of which stemmed from concerns of perspective and appropriation: a different kind of drawn-out weight I hadn't experienced with short stories. Haven't lost that yet, either. I like to think my Gary Oldman novel came easier by whatever the shortcomings the prior attempt taught me. If nothing else, the process for this book was by far more enjoyable and mysterious than the previous. I had to let go a bit more than I have before. Court irreverence. Poke certain minor tyrannies in the eye.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
The fiction itch ingrained itself very early. I grew up in interior Alaska with exposure to and some sense of Native folklore around me. Abridged versions of Jack London, Melville, A Thousand and One Nights and others from my parents. Stories were great play for me, and any complemented with artwork held my fascination. They remain closest, too, to my academic development during those years. Earliest schoolwork I can recall involves writing micro-fiction on those large sheets of lined paper with blank space to draw pictures, a tale involving a medicine man who turned into a bear but started feeling better once he took an aspirin. Need self-distractions as a kid to survive long winters in Fairbanks. Fiction was best grist for the mill.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Preliminary writing for me comes quickly enough with or without notes, but it's the editing part that drags everything out. I'll spend forever on a single paragraph if I have to. Often I have little confidence that anything in front of me moves. Then I'll have some rare item that shoots out of the gate, but only if the final shape suggests itself in advance.

4 - Where does a work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Almost always does my prose begin working towards an idea instead of from it. Short pieces to start, though Gary Oldman has had me re-evaluate my former approaches. These days I could launch into material thinking of a book in mind, whereas before I would've done anything to avoid trying a premise for a novel.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I confess I don't entirely understand yet how public readings affect that process for me beyond some curating I once did after my MFA. I seldom write anything while conscious of how well they work when spoken despite that I'm a big proponent of pleasing or engaging cadence in prose as a primary craft issue. Reading the page and reading aloud in public remain mutually exclusive things to me, however. I'd like to eventually reconcile that.

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

One ongoing general concern I have relates to an old problem that contemporary fiction is still catching up to, what James Joyce, according to Richard Ellman's biography, openly worried about to a friend in Switzerland before his death in regards to Ulysses being too systematized. Yet I'm drawn to such novels in the vein of Ulysses published these days, even if I'm left unconvinced or worn down some of the time by their efforts afterwards. Does unconventional or experimental prose's intrinsic drift from an accessible humanitarianism have a point of no return for a reader's attention, then, and how have shorter hybrid forms today helped solve this without sacrificing the fulfillment of a writer's vision for the work?

7 – 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?

I warn my novice creative writing students that we may be compelled by market influence to write while subjected to popular notions of accomplished writers as only rock star entities with six-figure advances from major publishing houses. I see many talented writers getting it done at the local level, using creative writing to directly affect positive change in individuals or whole communities, spark cultural scenes where there's little culture to be had. I also see some of the best writing today published by small presses and paving the way for our next literary forms. Whatever the roles are, writers can define those in spite of the more glamorous trappings and they'll likely be writers who have a readership if that's what they want.

That said, I frequently worry that writers operate to only converse with other writers, myself included. And many writers are natural introverts as well; if their roles are solitary ones, so be it.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Don't know about "essential," but they always have some place in my process towards the end, depending on how keen and motivated they are.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
No matter where you go, there you are.

10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

Since I teach during the weekdays, I'm usually writing early in the morning or late at night. No complicated routine. Kitchen table with coffee, pen and paper (I never get to my desk until I'm ready for serious editing). Have to have some sound around me while writing, too. Keep going until I get tired. That's all.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
The need to disengage myself from narrative, character, etc., gets strong occasionally, and over the years I've taken refuge in reading poetry and hybrid forms. Plus art museums, movies, nightlife, commiserating with my astute colleagues, some fresh takes from my students.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
White birch with passing whiff of moss, moose scat and dog.

13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Music and art are heavy influences, almost necessary, and not always high-brow, to be sure. Gary Oldman was born out of a single, intense moment in what is apparently Oldman's least favorite film, Sid and Nancy. Some cultural detritus has much potential to revise.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

Any of the major and lesser-known flash fiction / prose poetry practitioners stay in my constant esteem.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Disappear somewhere for awhile and try writing a poetry collection.

16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
On low days I consider tossing all grandiloquent literary concerns aside to imagine swapping my life out for Anthony Bourdain's CNN-comped travelogue hedonism.

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
A synthesis of feeling productive, satisfied and at ease with myself (if not the world) when I write, and having other people respond favorably to that writing in different ways. I know this may be inherently selfish given the current sociopolitical situation here in the States, but it's also been one of the very few constants in my life thus far.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Cortazar's Hopscotch is a pick-up I wish happened much sooner. Last great film is tricky, but since I've been taking in the return of Twin Peaks, I'll say that recently watching the Criterion edition of Lynch's Mulholland Dr. was also long overdue.

19 - What are you currently working on?
Other than the usual short pieces that come along, trying to sort out material done for a long manuscript involving to some degree Abstract Expressionist artist Clyfford Still, the 1985 film To Live and Die in L.A., the synth-pop genius of Wang Chung, coin-op pay phones, apartment buildings in dying cities, and notions of the (post-) apocalyptic.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Sunday, October 22, 2017

12 or 20 (small press) questions with Angelo Colavita on Empty Set Press

Empty Set Press publishes chapbooks of conceptual and experimental poetry by writers who challenge the functions of language, form, and imagery, producing work that is innovative, new, and exciting. Based in Philadelphia, ESP strives toward a synthesis of local authors, visual artists, print shops, and venues within the city’s thriving literary landscape to broaden the horizons of the greater artistic community as well as the community at large.

Founding Editor of Empty Set Press, ANGELO COLAVITA lives and writes in Philadelphia, where he hosts Oxford Coma, a nihilist poetry reading series and serves as Poetry Editor for Limited Editions Quarterly Journal. His work has appeared in Apiary Magazine, The Philadelphia Citizen, Mad House, Rolling Thunder Quarterly, Be About It Zine, Outcast Poetry Journal and elsewhere online and in print. His first chapbook, HEROINes, was published in March 2017.

1 – When did Empty Set Press first start? How have your original goals as a publisher shifted since you started, if at all? And what have you learned through the process?
I started Empty Set Press back in March. I was basically just following suggestions. After an extended absence from the poetry community, I started bouncing around, doing readings again. A few people asked where they could find more of my work. I’ve had a few pieces published in magazines here and there and online, but several people told me I should have a chapbook out. I was reluctant to self-publish, and to be honest, I was ready to move on from the stuff I was writing during the years I was MIA. But I figured, I might as well. It was sort of a ruse. I came up with the name and a logo and slapped it on the back of a collection that would become Empty Set’s first release: HEROINes. Pretty slick. In an effort to legitimize the whole thing, I filed for an LLC with student loan money and set up a website. I turned to Chris McCreary, who’d been running Ixnay Press in Philly for some advice on how to make my next move. He suggested I publish someone else as soon as I made my money back with the sales from HEROINes. So that’s what I did. The first person I thought to solicit was Maryan Captan. We were friends in the poetry scene for a while at this point and connected greatly on a creative level, so it made perfect sense. I’m really proud of Copy/Body. It’s a lovely and unnerving chapbook.

So what started as a means of getting something out that I could potentially peddle at readings turned into something I could use to publish poets I loved that were kind of on the outer ring of the inner circle, so to speak. And there was room for it in the Philly scene, so why not? The chapbook is a vital part of publishing history, especially among poets. I go for work that is weird, dynamic, written by poets that aren’t going to shy from toying with form and language and a bleak aesthetic. One thing I’ve learned that I’d never considered is how helping someone bring their concept to life, give it flesh, would give me another creative outlet beside the writing itself, and still within the realm of poetry.

2 – What first brought you to publishing?
As I mentioned before, what first brought me to publishing was the publication of HEROINes. But what’s keeping me going is so much greater than myself. I enjoy editing and layout, designing covers, booking readings… It’s more of a lifestyle, in my opinion. Every aspect of my day-to-day life revolves around writing, be it my own or my friends’ or anyone else’s.

3 – What do you consider the role and responsibilities, if any, of small publishing?
Small publishers have this advantage of working intimately with their authors. Seeing their authors’ ideas through is what a small press is not only capable of, but also, responsible for. When I read something I love, or hear someone read that totally blows me away, I feel it’s my job to take that writing and put it in print in a way that highlights its personality with respect to the author’s voice. The aesthetic of the book is terribly important to me. It has to look and feel like the poetry sounds. The art on the cover has to speak on the words on the page. The fonts have to be cold if the writing is cold, delicate if the writing is delicate. The empty spaces are as much a part of the book as the poetry is, and should be treated as such, so the margins and linespacing need to reflect that. Then there is the promotion and everything at that end: launch parties, readings, etc. I try not to just book readings or events on my own as Empty Set, but also support local monthly reading series in the area as well.
This is what I commit to when I publish a book. It’s a matter of fully integrating the poetry and the poet with artists and venues and a readership. I’m a midwife, so to speak.

4 – What do you see your press doing that no one else is?
I love experimental poetry. Stuff I have to read several times over. Stuff I want to read several times over. I love collections that move from one poem to the next, that share some kind of symbiotic relationship. I like to be challenged. If there is one thing that will separate Empty Set Press from anyone else, is that you can count on being challenged intellectually, emotionally, aesthetically… It takes more than wearing your heart on your sleeve to write solid poetry. Use the form. Abuse the form. Get uncomfortable. Otherwise, why do it at all?

5 – What do you see as the most effective way to get new chapbooks out into the world?
Right now, I’m just selling books through the website (emptysetpress.com) and at poetry readings. It’s not uncommon for me to carry chapbooks around with me in a backpack either. It’s keeping the press afloat for the time being, though, with everything in store for the press within the next few months, I’m going to have to make bigger moves. I’ll probably be setting something up with SPD (Small Press Distribution) for the next release, Maris McLamoureary’s DICTIONNAIRE INFERNAL by Chris McCreary & Mark Lamoureux (due out sometime this fall). This thing is gaining momentum faster than I ever expected it would and it’s already time to expand a bit. SPD can reach a wider audience than I can on my own. I want to avoid the whole Amazon thing. I feel that’s unnecessary. I’ll avoid chain stores and corporate bullshit at all costs. They’re unnecessary. This is a time when artists can have complete control over their output, marketing, and distribution, so there’s no need to rely on anyone else outside of our own communities. If I’m going to publish local, emerging writers, I’m going to use a local printer to print the damn things and in the near future, I’ll go through an independent distributor to get them out to people. But that’s in the near future. Right now I’m doing well on my own, with the support of the Philly arts and poetry community, and elsewhere through Empty Set’s website.

6 – How involved an editor are you? Do you dig deep into line edits, or do you prefer more of a light touch?
I suppose that all depends on the content itself. I’ll read a manuscript many, many times over before I make any edits. This is after I have some kind of sit-down with the author. So far, the authors I’m publishing have been poets I’m quite familiar with already, so I have a fairly good understanding of their voice. But I also keep in mind the intent of their concept and the feel of each individual poem as much as I do the book as a whole. That said, I’ll run through once for punctuation and spelling issues, once for linespacing/layout purposes, try a few different fonts or font sizes, page breaks, stuff like that, cut what poems work with overall mood of the book, sequencing. By the time I send the file off to the printer, I’ll have gone over it about twenty times or so. That’s not an exaggeration. With Copy/Body, the biggest issue was really sequencing and uniformity when it came down to things like capitalization or caesurae. I’m now working on Cynthia Jones’ new chapbook, The World Sucks, But Some Things Don’t, and that’s a bit more involved. She’s a strong performance poet, so I’ve had to come up with more dynamic ways of presenting her work on the page that represent her delivery on stage. She handed me a pretty hefty manuscript and all of the poems fit nicely together, but I’ll have to push my own sentimentality aside in order to cut it down to a chapbook-length collection. With Maris McLamoureary’s DICTIONNAIRE INFERNAL, Chris and Mark put together a pretty solid manuscript. There wasn’t much for me to do aside from sequencing the poems and making their punctuation styles uniform -- for instance, Chris will use two spaces after a period, while Mark will use one. I can pretty much tell you which of the two make what kinds of typos. Mark whips out Middle English or some arcane 17th Century French words that traditionally will have four different spellings amid modern references to Star Wars or Dungeons & Dragons, so I’ve had to shoot him text messages while working on that manuscript to see what he prefers. And that’s one of the things I love most about that book.

7 – How do your books get distributed? What are your usual print runs?
For the past two chaps, we’ve done a run of 125 each, for the first editions. For the Maris run, it’ll probably be more like 200, since there are two authors who live in two different states and therefore have twice as many readers. I use Fireball Printing, a local Philly print shop, to handle all the printing and assembly. They’ve done such amazing work and are so accommodating. They really go above and beyond and print a high-quality chapbook.

As far as distribution goes, anyone can order through Empty Set’s website, emptysetpress.com. If any bulk or international orders come in, I ask that you shoot us an email, rather than the online shop. We ship through the US Post Office, so shipping charges on those kinds of orders vary. Makes the paperwork easier on both ends. One thing we’ll be doing starting with the Maris book is using SPD, which will make shipping internationally way more convenient and affordable.

8 – How many other people are involved with editing or production? Do you work with other editors, and if so, how effective do you find it? What are the benefits, drawbacks?
Up to this point, I’ve been the only one editing and handling layout. The experience has been great, but as we get busier, I imagine I’ll be turning to other to help out with that. It’s been pretty easy keeping true to the author's’ voice and vision with a single editor. However, it’s definitely time consuming along with all of the other things I’ve got going on, communitywise. After Dictionnaire Infernal and The World Sucks…, I’m moving on to three more manuscripts from Patrick Blagrave, Phil Mittereder, and a book of short stories by Christine Jones. There is no shortage of poets and editors in Philadelphia, that’s for certain.

9– How has being an editor/publisher changed the way you think about your own writing?
I’ve definitely been experimenting a lot with form lately. I’m interested in how the line interacts with the page -- how the page forces the line, how they transition from one to the next. Lately, I’ve been drawn to very minimalist poetry, with more blank white space than poem. So that is a recent development. On the other hand, I’m knee-deep in writing a series of Hexagram poems, which happen to be dense blocks of text between thick margins. One of the greatest pleasures in writing, for me, is experiencing the mode and form dictate the language of a piece of literature and how that manifests into the physical object of a book.

10– How do you approach the idea of publishing your own writing? Some, such as Gary Geddes when he still ran Cormorant, refused such, yet various Coach House Press’ editors had titles during their tenures as editors for the press, including Victor Coleman and bpNichol. What do you think of the arguments for or against, or do you see the whole question as irrelevant?
HEROINes was published under Empty Set Press, but that was more or less just to get it off the ground. I may or may not do that again. With future manuscripts, I’ll shop those around. If I had my way, writers would all run presses and publish each other. Of course, it all depends on the manuscript, really. I’d probably consider it on a project-to-project basis. One can say there is a certain degree of vanity and narcissism in publishing your own work, but then again the same can be said to expect someone else to publish you; there is a sense of validation that comes along with it. I think a bit of narcissism is necessary in the business of any art, and if an artist can have complete creative control over their work, then by all means they should take it. But when it comes to community, which is vital to a life of poetry, I’d rather let someone else publish my work, if only to participate in broadening the foundation. More people benefit from that sort of relationship. So, to answer your question… I don’t know. It’s probably irrelevant. That question itself isn’t irrelevant; it should be asked and definitely explored. But any answer to it is probably irrelevant.

11– How do you see Empty Set Press evolving?
Experimental poetry isn’t a style of writing. That’s a common misconception. It just means you are trying something new, seeing if it works and what you can do with it. There are writers of all styles who like to explore new ideas, so I’d like to work with writers from a variety of other scenes who are doing this sort of thing. I want to publish your harebrained hullabaloo. I want the results of your scientific research. Eventually, I’d like to publish some kind of anthology. Maybe move on to perfect-bound full-lengths. And touring. Touring is definitely in the cards for Empty Set. We’re only a few months old now, so it’s hard to say for certain, but I’d like to load up who I can into a van and take ESP on the road. There is also a plan in the works for a brick-and-mortar venue: kind of a flophouse where poets and artists can create, hang out and crash, which would double as a performance space.

12– What, as a publisher, are you most proud of accomplishing? What do you think people have overlooked about your publications? What is your biggest frustration?

13– Who were your early publishing models when starting out?

Chris from Ixnay Press and Shanna Compton from Bloof Books were instrumental in helping ESP become a reality. I was really into early Soft Skull releases. I grew up reading New Directions paperbacks. I love what Dalkey Archive has been doing. Green Integer, too, and their formatting is ideal.

14– How does Empty Set Press work to engage with your immediate literary community, and community at large? What journals or presses do you see Empty Set Press in dialogue with? How important do you see those dialogues, those conversations?
I book readings pretty often, and I try to attend as many other readings as possible. I mean, I love going to poetry readings, but it’s also a matter of being present and active in the community, talking to people, etc. Apiary Magazine is a Philadelphia institution. They’ve been very supportive of Empty Set Press from day one. In fact, the first short story I’ve ever had published was in Apiary back in 2009, and we’ve had a close relationship ever since. Mad House Magazine is another great publication. My buddy Phil Mittereder runs Mad House and we have similar creative philosophies regarding writing. He’s in the process now of putting together a new manuscript which will be published by Empty Set soon. It’s vital for a small press to have a good relationship with other presses, magazines, reading series… Especially in poetry. The tighter the community, the stronger everyone’s output is, on the whole.

15– Do you hold regular or occasional readings or launches? How important do you see public readings and other events?
I’ll book readings pretty often, whether they’re strictly Empty Set Press, or not. There are also a million great monthly reading series in the area, so we try to jump on their bills, too. As far as launches go... Yes, every chapbook release gets a launch party. I’m trying to tailor the party to suit the book itself. For the Dictionnaire Infernal launch, we’re having it at The Strange & Unusual, a local oddities parlor, and the band God Root is going to play an acoustic set. There will also be several other poets reading and a few other surprises in store at that launch, which I won’t get into here. It is shrouded in mystery for the time being.

16– How do you utilize the internet, if at all, to further your goals?

Like most businesses, we do almost everything through the internet. Communication, promotion, marketing, everything. It’s 2017 -- the internet is as real as the air we breathe. I’m pretty sure Empty Set would not be as far along as it is now without the internet. At least not as fast.

17– Do you take submissions? If so, what aren’t you looking for?

Right now, I have several titles lined up waiting for editing and layout. So we’re not accepting any unsolicited manuscripts. At some point we’ll open up for submissions, though. I’m not interested in publishing any of the New Confessional stuff (it’s fine for what it’s worth, but there are plenty of presses that will publish that), I’m not interested in memoirs or your diary. I will never publish anything that might be described as Bukowski-esque. No bar-brawl war stories, misogyny, or other American vitriol. Absolutely no hate literature whatsoever. And no kitschy humor (you can submit that stuff to McSweeney’s, I’m sure they’ll give it a go).

18– Tell me about three of your most recent titles, and why they’re special.
Maryan Captan’s Copy/Body was our second release, but I see it as our first. Maryan is like my sister, and her poetry never fails to terrify me in the most tender way possible. We worked really hard on this book together and I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out. It’s actually two collections in one that meet in the center of the book; one side is Copy, and the other is Body. They have their own individual identities, but they share a certain dialogue with each other that is certainly magical. In October, the pre-orders for Maris McLamoureary’s DICTIONNAIRE INFERNAL, will be available. I’m really excited for this book to come out. Once a year, Chris McCreary and Mark Lamoureux write a poem together every day for the month of April as “Maris”. This chapbook is a collection of 24 poems, each for a specific demon. I borrowed a few style cues from an old edition of Aleister Crowley’s Book of Wisdom or Folly, as well as other esoteric/occult texts, to design the layout. Tattoo artist Kyle Fitzpatrick designed a sigil for the cover based on pentacles from The Lesser Key of Solomon. The poetry itself is a fantastic barrage of language, every line propelling you forward. After that, I’m releasing Cynthia Jones’ debut collection The World Sucks, But Some Things Don’t. Cynthia is more of a slam poet, so I’m working on getting her poems down on the page in a way that speaks on her performance. The book is essentially about trauma, and it’s various forms, so the pages are all color coded as a sort of trigger warning. Like, if you’d rather not read poems about depression, skip the pink pages; if you want to avoid poems about suicide, skim past the blue pages… Sounds like an intense read, and it is, but the best thing about it is there is this thread of hope that runs throughout the entire manuscript, the rainbow of pages, because that’s really who she is and what she’s about.

12 or 20 (small press) questions;

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Gord Downie (February 6, 1964 – October 17, 2017)



As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, Gordon Edgar Downie, poet, lyricist and front-man for The Tragically Hip, has died. How much can I add? What can I say that might even be relevant?

His sense of Canadian wasn’t nationalistic, but openly inclusive, passionate, critical and uniquely lyric. There was a generosity and attentiveness to him that was quite remarkable. He worked to make us better, more aware and closer to each other.

Christine and I watched that final show on the CBC last year and were transfixed, in awe of what the Hip had accomplished over their tenure, and amazed at how CBC was aware enough to capture such an important cultural moment, both live and commercial-free.

The summer after the publication of his poetry collection, Coke Machine Glow (2001), he came through Ottawa to finally launch the book at an event hosted by the ottawa international writers festival. He opened his reading to an audience of some three hundred plus to a poem of mine, from my collection bagne: or Criteria for Heaven (Broken Jaw Press, 2001). I was floored.

Apparently at the Ottawa Book Awards ceremony the other night, Sean Wilson mentioned the look on my face as this happened. I can’t even imagine, or recall. I know throughout the reading, Gord read poems by four other poets: David O’Meara, Karen Solie, Al Purdy and Elizabeth Bishop. I hope I’m remembering that correctly. The on-stage interview was conducted by Ken Babstock.

I was already aware of a recommendation he’d made, via the Chapters.ca website (a post long disappeared). He’d been asked to recommend other first poetry titles by Canadian titles, and mentioned my first collection alongside first collections by Paul Vermeersch and, I think, Babstock and Solie as well (the list is hazy now in my recollections).

Prior to the event, as Sean and I stood in the National Archives, we spotted Neil Wilson and Gord Downie walking toward us from the entranceway, Gord holding up a copy of my book as they approached. How, I asked myself, was this happening?

After the reading, we walked with Gord into the Byward Market for drinks, and some of us took turns wearing his jean jacket; like teenagers. He seemed amused by us.

The following night, he’d left tickets for a number of us for the Blues Festival show the Hip were doing. I took my daughter Kate, and we ended up in the V.I.P. section, where she was able to meet opening performer Sarah Harmer. Kate and I walked home on air, stopping for pizza on Bank Street around midnight (the first we’d walked more than half a block without my preteen child complaining I needed a car).

It was a baffling generosity by a man who clearly had an enormous amount of time, attention and energy for everyone around him. He made things better wherever he went, and as much as he could, including, even in the months following his diagnosis, giving an incredible amount of attention to helping others.

The likes of him will not be soon this way again. Godspeed, Mr. Downie. You will be missed.


Friday, October 20, 2017

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Tung-Hui Hu



Tung-Hui Hu is the author of three books of poetry, The Book of Motion (2003), Mine (2007), and Greenhouses, Lighthouses (Copper Canyon Press, 2013), a chapbook, On the Kepel Fruit (Albion Press, 2017), and a study of digital culture, A Prehistory of the Cloud (MIT Press, 2015). He has received awards from Yaddo, MacDowell Colony, the NEA, and the San Francisco Foundation, and his poems have appeared in places such as Boston Review, Ploughshares, the Academy of American Poets’s Poem-a-Day, and the anthology Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of Hybrid Literary Genres. Hu teaches poetry and digital studies at the University of Michigan, where he is an assistant professor of English.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
The year my first book came out I moved back to California and entered a graduate program in architecture. At the time, and for a few years afterwards, that book felt more like the end of something, rather than the beginning of, say, a literary career. Now that empty feeling has lessened a bit, but it wasn’t until the difficult birth of my second book that I began to feel my life had changed. My most recent work is more prosaic and less dressed up in finer language; I’m happier to say what I really mean to say.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Besides the appeal of its brevity, I was working a summer job down the street from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Colorado, and decided to try a course. I didn’t fit in at all. The poets translated from other languages; were older; had pain, etc. – nothing I had experienced yet, being still a teenager. I was fascinated by my fellow students and instructors, flattered that I could possibly be considered one of ‘them,’ and wanted to do it, too.


3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Usually I have an object I want to write about, but not the angle. And I always imagine everyone else has thought of the object and been struck by how poetic it is. That full eclipse that just happened in the US, for example; so many terrible poems, and probably a few good ones, will be written about it. So it takes a long time for my writing to mutate into something strange enough that I won’t be embarrassed by my starting point.

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
There are big, abstract questions that keep floating about my head – about how we write about empire, about the invisible, about capital. And there are also stories that I come across from reading other books, the news, etc. – for instance, about the rarest pasta on earth, or a 17th-century beached whale. The poem often comes out of trying to figure out how to combine those two extremes. As for your question about scale, I often begin by imagining everything as part of a “book”, even if that book is entirely fictitious. It takes the pressure off making each line perfect.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Readings feel like the reward for writing – the part where we can all just be witty rather than dour, which is my on-page personality. People who come up to me and tell me what lines they remember or enjoy, or other books to read, are helpful to my process, too. I won’t always remember what I was thinking when I wrote a poem, but I’ll always remember the times I’ve been heckled by the audience or, occasionally, the organizer.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I’m currently working on an academic book about lethargy, so the questions on my mind are about passivity and how we negotiate political (in)action within the constraints of capitalism. Because I was asked to give a few talks on the environment, I’m also thinking about nonhuman agency, and as a result, I have some new poems written from the time and perspective of mushrooms and mayflies.

7 – 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?
Most of my colleagues and friends are (correctly and necessarily) outspoken about the political role of writing and about writing’s ability to intervene in culture. For me, though, I’m a reticent writer; that’s my personality. Writing shouldn’t need to do anything; it shouldn’t have to justify itself. The doesn’t-do-anything part of writing is, for me, an antidote to a neoliberal world that’s hellbent on making everything productive.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I’ve worked most closely with an outside editor on my nonfiction book A Prehistory of the Cloud, and found it absolutely essential. Ben called bullshit on a lot of my rhetorical flourishes—those tricks to disguise the moments I didn’t have a clear idea of what I was saying. And he helped me think about the architecture of my story, rather than jump from idea to idea.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Never ever bad mouth your colleagues.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical/academic prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
It’s gone a bit better than I expected; it was made easier by discovering how many other poets have made that transition, such as Lewis Hyde. The appeal of critical prose for me has been that it’s a chance to provoke, to change how people think about a subject by wrenching the steering wheel away from the previous ways of doing things. The tough part has been keeping a consistent tone, since, as a poet, I obviously like experimenting with the craft of writing. Nobody will ever notice, but there’s a really deft jump-cut between two ideas in A Prehistory of the Cloud. That’s the stuff I’m secretly proudest of.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I only get to write poetry for about a month, maybe a month and a half, each year. So most of that time is spent trying to figure out what I was trying to do the previous year—what I was doing with line; what experiments or ideas had stalled. A typical day begins with a bagel and cream cheese, reading over my drafts from the previous day and whatever book is on my desk, and writing down what ideas I want to try working on for the day.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I guess I go for a walk? That, and returning to an Asian American sense of shame that I’m wasting someone’s time/money by not writing?

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Salt water and laundry exhaust, and if I’m really being honest, a bit of urine, too.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Mostly visual art. I’m currently obsessed with Candice Breitz’s “Love Story”, a multi-channel installation with Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore performing a script based on interviews Breitz did with six refugees from Syria, Angola, India, Venezuela, Somalia, and the DR Congo. It uses Hollywood stars to expertly dismantle the Hollywood star system and the white savior myth.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
C.D. Wright, Cornelius Eady, Kimiko Hahn, off the top of my head, to name some of my “elders” that continue to influence me.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d like to live on a canal boat (narrowboat).

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I had a very brief taste of working as a political consultant, and I might like to pursue that career at some point – I like the strategizing and the details (some might say minutiae) of the game, and of course the stakes feel very high right now. I also just learned about the foreign service exam; I did reasonably well on a practice test, and that seems like it would have been a better way of spending my 20s/30s.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Perhaps that I’m a slow thinker, and appreciate the length of time that one can take between books – no editor or publisher will ever be pounding the table, demanding my next book of poetry.  Not producing on deadline seems very rare to me, and precious. (I realize this contradicts the career choices I listed above.)

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
This isn’t exactly right, but the two films that spring to mind from last summer, when I had some time to watch films for leisure, were Jane Gillooly’s Suitcase of Love and Shame and Deborah Stratman’s In Order Not To Be Here. As for the last book, Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins.

20 - What are you currently working on?
A paper about how we feel infrastructure for a few upcoming conferences and workshops. Also, learning to be less impatient.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Sennah Yee, How Do I Look?




PROM

I bought us pearl earrings for $5 from an elderly vendor in Chinatown. I told him how neither of us had ever owned anything pearl before. He knew they were fake, and so did I, and so did you, but it didn’t matter. Later, you spilled Smirnoff all over the gown you borrowed from your sister. I tried not to stare at the lace and sequins of your bra seeping through the soaked fabric. Having eyes only for you is just a glamorous way of saying that I am blind.

Following the release of two poetry chapbooks through American chapbook publisher Dancing Girl Press – THE AQUARIUM (2014) and THE GL.A.DE (2017) – Toronto poet Sennah Yee’s first full-length collection is How Do I Look? (Montreal QC: Metatron Press, 2017). How Do I Look? is a collection of short, self-contained, observational prose-poems, a number of which reference a variety of degrees of sexual and racial violence, from microagressions and offhanded comments to far, far worse, and the ways in which women are required to constantly be on guard. The short poem “MEDUSA,” for example, that opens the collection, reads:

Beauty, power, and confidence without gaze. Then, a man holds up a mirror and kills her. There is nothing mythical about that.

Utilizing a series of pop culture references, including an array of film titles as poem titles, the poems in Yee’s How Do I Look? are smart, wonderfully playful, precise and straightforward, all the while shining a spotlight on some rather dark corners of how people insist on treating each other. “I want to cry when locals ask me where I’m from,” she writes, in the poem “SIEM REAP,” composing out a short tourist scene from Angkor Wat, “because I know they are trying to bring me closer, not push me away.” In a 2016 interview over at Speaking of Marvels, she writes:

My writing’s evolved closer to creative non-fiction, focusing on racism and sexism. I used to be too shy to write about myself. Now I see value in narrativizing life events, even and perhaps especially the ones that make me feel weak and/ or ugly. Being openly vulnerable can feel very brave and strong. I feel like my writing’s become a more accurate reflection of my identity. I was terrified at first to share my short piece for Poor Claudia’s 10 Sources series about micro-aggressions and anxieties as a Chinese-Canadian woman, but the response was touching and validating. It made me want to write pieces that are more powerful and political in their honesty and anger. I want my writing to wake people up.

The poems in this collection feel intensely personal, and exist as a combination of lyric essay, observational moment and condenced scene-study, and her writing very much has the potential to do something absolutely incredible. I want to see where else she goes.