Thursday, April 19, 2018

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Sylvia Chan


Sylvia Chan is the author of We Remain Traditional, out from the Center for Literary Publishing in February 2018. She lives in Tucson, where she teaches in the Writing Program at the University of Arizona and serves as nonfiction editor for Entropy and court advocate for foster kids in Pima County.

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

We Remain Traditional is my first book. I had been removed from it for three years, having finished it in a year and a half in 2013 and put it aside until I sent it out in 2016. I started teaching full time and committing myself to others who were bad for me—the people who are bound to me by blood and by kinship. At one point, I looked at myself in the mirror and asked why I was bailing one of my parents out of their problem again. I felt trapped because on the outside, I was okay; on the inside, I desired to be loved and cared for by my family. All of the first book compilation happened in my early twenties and today, I am still in my twenties, meaning I have processed the events of my first book for six years, and I am done with it.

My first book is only one part of the tradition out of which I come—foster care. Finding out that the first place to which I submitted my first book—I was like, how did this happen to me? I can do this; I am brave enough to write and speak my story. That is what I try to remember as I work on my current project, the foster care book. I understand the subject is ugly and pits me in a seemingly small demographic where few grow out of “the system” to matriculate out of high school, much less stay out of jail or kill or be killed because we could not fathom a bigger earth that includes us. The first book fortified my conviction in my voice and in my social justice.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

I was fortunate my best friend, my foster brother, read poetry to me. Stuff no ward of the state was expected to hear—Paul Celan, June Jordan, Sonia Sanchez. And I grew to write songs and improvise them when I moved from classical to jazz piano. I’ve spent my life cultivating my musicality, which is the first step towards maneuvering my voice. 

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?

In terms of product, I can generate. We Remain Traditional is almost intact from my MFA thesis. What slows me is the processing of my fears, traumas, memories, and experiences. It is important for me to put out the story I most need to speak. My drafts reflected this: I could see I wasn’t ready to let go, even of people who have wronged me. Which is fair: why shouldn’t I be allowed to admit I’m struggling with my writing because I’m struggling with my life? For closing in on drafts, it is about my willingness to let go. I am a writer who cranks out publishable material, but doesn’t publish until I’m ready.

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?

I see the entire book from the beginning. I have no problem dispensing with strong poems which stand alone, that I can write well, but don’t belong in the book. Manuscript organization and section shifts are also easy for me. What trips me up are smaller and fluid transitions from poem to poem, especially minor but additive poems. Limited repetitions, e.g. moving poems around such that the pattern is one of obsession and not a waning of affect, and lack of parallelisms drive me crazy. Every poem does not have to be loud to do something to me as the writer, and hopefully, to you as the reader. Back to letting it go!

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

I am a private person unused to being asked how I’m doing; no, really, how I’m doing. Publicity is new. I enjoy conversations and speaking for others, which is what I do in education, editing, and literacy and court advocacy. It’s the fighting for myself that’s hard—I have to demonstrate a selfishness that feels wrong to uphold. Call it being unused to celebrating myself. I enjoy readings—it just feels like I’m renewing my skin each time, exposing myself as a writer reading her work.

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?

Currently, I am preoccupied with two questions. One, how do we justify legal or uncontested murders? I am not talking necessarily on insidious acts such as lynching; I mean, legally, the plaintiff wins because they’ve followed their constitutional terms stronger than the defendant. And even though my heart is almost always with the victim and survivor, I see how the perpetrator made it “right” for them: they understand how to use the law to justify their means.

How do we pardon each other—how do we forgive our humanities? Perhaps I am too forgiving in believing every human has a soul. If I were to hate to the extent that I’m unable to forgive, I think I will have forgotten why I should write.

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 hope to be a part of how poetry allows me to enact change: to make my specific and unique experiences new, to expose them so viscerally any reader will look at my words and allow a space for them. Sympathy and empathy are tall orders, and I understand not everyone will exhibit the compassion I practice and live. I don’t want or expect that for all writers. But to write, that means you acknowledge your responsibility as to what your voice stands for. A writer needs to be frank, unafraid, different, and powerful. They can’t hide. They can’t denigrate. If a writer puts down other writers to make their points, they will be found. 

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Editors fight for your voice to be heard. I like being left alone and then, at the intuitive times, being asked, Hey, where’s that draft? Headshot? Hello, can you let me know you’re okay? I like being reminded it’s okay for me to be human and be slow at logistics, or even to sift through my poetry so I can trust in it.  

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

I think about what I want my daughter to read and to know about her genealogy. If I am not here to tell her, what do I want to leave behind for her to read as she grows up? 

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to piano)? What do you see as the appeal?

I was a pianist first so I play piano and write interchangeably. A writing day means sitting at the piano and playing out my poems. I’m not talking about strict lines, what it looks like on the computer screen. Pen, paper, and my musical ear are all that matters because I’m trying to sound out my poems. If I’m not comfortable with how they sound, in the beauty and pity and ugliness and compassion, how can I expect my listeners and readers to follow me?

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?

Ideally, I aim to write on my non-work or non-teaching days, which is five. Five! Realistically, I spend my days off serving as a court advocate for foster kids: real time interacting with legal, educational, placement, and behavioral health services; hanging out with the child for whom I’m legally appointed to fight; writing court entries and reports; processing what is the best interest of the child. Although I’ve never wanted to be a lawyer, legal advocacy has always been something I wanted to do, and I think it strengthens my writing in the way the rest of my life sustains my art: my self-care is fighting for foster children because that is my subject. Serving in non-profits is not enough for me: I want to return to the courtroom. I want to be a part of enacting some legal change, no matter how small, slow, and enduring.

I try to write an hour or two from 6-9 a.m. My “break” is doing all my court advocacy: consolidating my case notes, calling different parties, driving to these parties. Without thinking about it, the time it takes for me to complete court duties is a form of processing—I’ve done so much mental work by the time I’m back at the piano, I know what is the next step. I reserve organization and rearrangements, and sometimes revision, for the ends of the day: the late school nights when I’m too tired to create new work, but not tired enough to stop re-envisioning my work.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

Nina Simone, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday. Backwater blues. Hip hop and intersections of hip hop and popular music, like Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean. Unapologetic voices.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Tamarind. Hong Kong milk tea. Cigar and menthol cigarette smoke.

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?

Jazz music, especially Oscar Peterson, Thelonious Monk, and John Coltrane. Their precisions are instrumental, intuitive, addictive, political: they are aligned with showcasing human vulnerability and intimacy.

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

Some have not changed over the years: Celan, Jordan, and Sanchez are still my go-tos. Nawal El-Saadawi, David Mitchell, James Baldwin, Alice Notley, Jesmyn Ward, Ta-nehisi Coates, Ronaldo Wilson. Justin Chin and Stacy Doris. I confess I read more novels than poetry, and I read nonfiction because it is easier for me to read essays when thinking about my poetry. Publishing nonfiction for Entropy has helped me recognize my editorial voice: I see how to edit the most confessional voices—not to tone down or strip away, but to focus on the parts that really need to be seen by our community. Unsurprisingly, this has helped me work through my poetry: these genres are aligned in that they’re always asking for the writer’s reinvention. And, on that end, I am able to write one or two essays when I don’t want to confine my truths to a poem, which is limited—an essay allows for the entirety of one’s truths. I cannot say how much being an editor has allowed me to confront and to choose the distance necessary for all my work.  

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

I want to be behind a transition program for foster kids going to college. Like, let’s say you’re moving to the dorms. How do you buy bedsheets when you’ve owned a trash bag with all your belongings up to that point? What about self-care, including a space where you can meet other foster kids and talk about what makes you different without feeling like you’re outside because you’ve lived a different life? If I can be more than the 3% of foster kids who graduate from college, and see other faces that are not my own, I feel I’d validate my path to success. I don’t want it to be just me at the end; this earth has to allow much more. 

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?

Surprise surprise, I think I would enjoy the limits and idealisms in child welfare or at least social work. It makes me livid when I follow The San Francisco Chronicle’s investigation on “Fostering Failure” or the Arizona Republic’s “Why are kids taken away?” The foster care system is rife with so many flawed human beings: it’s easy to blame Child Protective Services; to fault behavioral health services for changing therapists because they didn’t want to talk about suicide ideation; to call foster and kinship placements “bad people;” to give up.

I have the stomach and the heart for it. And maybe that’s why being a writer along with my day job as an educator and my service as a court advocate works—I’m happy to be living the life I believe.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I tried piano performance and although I was talented, I knew very early, I wouldn’t go beyond improvisation and performance because my interests and motivations had shifted: I didn’t want to study it. Deep down inside, I think I pride myself on being an inquisitive and imaginative writer despite my history of not being in school, dropping out of school, and all these things that made it harder to sustain a consistent semblance at literacy—and I never saw it that way. I told myself, education is the way out of the system. The only person responsible for that is me. I devise my fate. I will put myself through school on my own terms, and after that, I will speak. I’m proud of my courage.  

Ander Monson, one of my mentors, told me it is those who live through remarkable tragedies who become more interesting people, and on that end, more unique writers, because they do not act for the sake of writing; they write simply because they are brave in facing their truths. I was sitting in front of him ready to declare I’m quitting poetry, which I think he knew. He’s right. Some of writers I know do things so they have something to write about, as though writing is the purpose and not living. That is fine if that works for them. For me, I try to just live, and regardless of how much I believe myself to be an artist, I’m also comfortable with letting that go. If, one day, I want to curate my passion for writing into a greater form of legal advocacy in child welfare, for instance—just as I’ve cultivated piano into poetry—I think I’ll still be happy.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

I’m rereading Alice Notley’s In the Pines. I love such an abandon for what matters to everybody else; she does not care whether you find her language impulsive and demanding, or justified as the crazy woman for her grief. Notley writes for the processing of her grief, of her beloved, of her body. She reinvents one of my favorite forms, the haibun. I don’t watch movies; I have an “accommodative eye focusing” problem, which sounds ridiculous until I’m disoriented from watching five minutes of characters dance across the screen.

20 - What are you currently working on?

My second book is After Every Pardon. It is unfinished. I can finish right now, if I want. But my filtering of the events, the people, the traumas, the memories, the addictions, the loves—those are more important. Because I am writing the people who are no longer with me on this earth, I am bound to honor their memories by writing the most truthful version of our stories. Which is not what poetry aims to do—as readers, we don’t look for every single truth; we look for the allure, for the bit of misgiving, inaccuracy, or even fabrication permitted in making words poetic.

As someone who does not lie in real life—excepting who drank all the coffee, whom I always blame the cat—I struggle with not telling every truth. I don’t know how to lie! And I’m adverse to lying: I didn’t end up in foster care because my parents were truthful beings. So I’m rethinking, rewriting, and re-envisioning how I can honor my loved ones and myself without being compelled to do something I don’t stand for. This earth will be ready for my next book when I’m ready.


Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Rodney Koeneke, Body & Glass



the new poetics

Snake, be quick—excuse of words
to make me sharp and want to write
waits in metaphors sleepless taunt.
People, use stones! Compose things
Slow to weeds sounds boys invent
from drone’s new lows. Saxifrage
in young stands lovers meet behind
nervous to dismiss significance
Ur-names meeting Ur-things
in the flowers, bees reconciling workers
to their combs. Quiet, writing
don’t strike ideas I let be composed
but through that flow of breath that is not
my breath, split ore from rock
that’s not my ore, my rock.

The latest from Portland, Oregon poet Rodney Koeneke, an early member of the Flarf collective, is the collection Body & Glass (Wave Books, 2018), following on the heels of his Etruria (Wave Books, 2014), Musee Mechanique (BlazeVOX Books, 2006) and Rouge State (Pavement Saw, 2003). There is something reminiscent of Ottawa poet Stephen Brockwell’s work in Koeneke’s tone and tenor in these poems, one that writes self-aware, methodically and deeply curious, seeking the poetic and the lyric through scientific method, and the scientific through the poetic and the lyric; especially one that seeks, through the tight, narrative lyric, answers to what might never be possible to know. As the poem “schottische” begins: “You are old but / if possible I’d / like to keep // Moving […]” Or this, the final stanza in the four-stanza poem “young historian’s scoring rubric,” that reads:

Analysis is solid, and done
in a historical way, but free
from all history—balloon on
a tether with girl in a picture
primary evidence let fly away.

Composed with an incredible, subtle sharpness, his is a poetics, and even a politics, that embrace both optimism and exhaustion, as he writes to open the poem “urdo made easy”: I am fed up with this world / And want to be somewhere else[.]”


Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The Factory Reading Series: Tucker, Hancock, McNair + mclennan, April 29, 2018

span-o (the small press action network - ottawa) presents:
The Factory Reading Series:

with readings by:

Aaron Tucker (Toronto)
Brecken Hancock (Ottawa)
Christine McNair (Ottawa)
+ rob mclennan (Ottawa)
lovingly hosted by rob mclennan
Sunday, April 29, 2017
doors 2pm; reading 2:45pm
The Carleton Tavern,
223 Armstrong Street (at Parkdale; upstairs)

Aaron Tucker
is the author of the novel Y: Oppenheimer, Horseman of Los Alamos (Coach House Books) as well as two books of poetry, Irresponsible Mediums: The Chess Games of Marcel Duchamp (Bookthug Press) and punchlines (Mansfield Press), and his latest chapbook with above/ground press Catalogue d'oiseaux. His current collaborative project, Loss Sets, translates poems into sculptures which are then 3D printed (http://aarontucker.ca/3-d-poems/); he is also the co-creator of The ChessBard, an app that transforms chess games into poems (http://chesspoetry.com).

Currently, he is an uninvited guest on the Dish with One Spoon Territory, where he is a lecturer in the English department at Ryerson University (Toronto), teaching creative and academic writing. You can reach him atucker[at]ryerson[dot]ca

Brecken Hancock's poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in The Puritan, Arc, Best Canadian Poetry in English, Best American Experimental Writing, The Globe & Mail and Hazlitt. Her first book of poems, Broom Broom (Coach House, 2014), was shortlisted for the ReLit Award and won the Trillium Book Award for Poetry. It was also named by The Globe & Mail's Jared Bland as a debut of the year, and appeared on a number of year-end best-book lists, including the National Post, All Lit Up, and BookThug's Best Reads. She lives in Ottawa.

Ottawa poet Christine McNair's [pictured] second poetry collection Charm came out from BookThug in 2017. Her first book Conflict (BookThug, 2012) was a finalist for the City of Ottawa Book Award, the Archibald Lampman Award, and the ReLit Award, and shortlisted for the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry. Her chapbook pleasantries and other misdemeanours (2013) was shortlisted for the bpNichol chapbook award. McNair lives in Ottawa, where she works as a book doctor.

rob mclennan’s most recent titles include The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014), the poetry collection A perimeter (New Star Books, 2016) and the chapbook snow day (above/ground press, 2018). His poetry title Household items (Salmon Poetry, 2018) should be out soon, hopefully. He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com. He also runs a reading series (this one!) three blocks away from where he was born.


Monday, April 16, 2018

happy (second) birthday, aoife!

Our wee girl turns two years old today. Huzzah!

She and I are off today to collect Christine from the train station around lunchtime, after her six days conferencing in Copenhagen, and the ice storm that prevented her scheduled Toronto-Ottawa flight last night.

On Saturday, she and Rose assisted with a garden attempt, planting some wee items in various planters around our sunroom.

 
 

Sunday, April 15, 2018

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Hera Lindsay Bird


Hera Lindsay Bird is a writer from Wellington, New Zealand. Her debut poetry collection Hera Lindsay Bird won the 2017 Jessie McKay prize for best first book. She is also the recipient of the 2011 Adam Prize, the 2017 Sarah Broom Prize and the 2017 recipient of an Arts Foundation New Generation Award. Her second chapbook Pamper Me To Hell & Back was published with The Poetry Business in 2018. 

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

My first book changed my life in lots of ways. I got to travel overseas to literary festivals in countries I’d never visited - Mexico, Canada, Scotland and I have a few more international trips coming up this year. This is a big deal if you live as far away as I do. I also got to meet and read with many of my heroes like Eileen Myles, Kim Addonizio, Mark Doty, Patricia Lockwood. I still work in retail to pay the bills, but money has become easier. Now, for instance, I can go to the dentist.

My chapbook is pretty similar to my first book – I think of it as a continuation, but it’s a little bit freer and comes from a more concentrated period of time. I don’t know how other people will read it, but to me it’s more joyful and less structured

I think the biggest difference is knowing what it takes to complete something. Before you have written a book, the idea of writing a book seems impossible, but as soon as you publish something it’s like, oh, ok, I just need to work a little harder.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

It could have been any of the three, but poetry suited me because it allowed me to write personally about my life, not worry about narrative structure and to show off enormously. I’d like to write fiction and non-fiction too, but poetry was an easy way in for someone with a short attention span. I also get a weird kick out of the stuffiness of the medium, and it feels more satisfying to break the rules of poetry than it does to break the rules of fiction, because everyone gets so butthurt about it.

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?

It’s changed a lot over the years. Lots of my earlier poems were more formally constructed, using laborious meddling with randomization processes & cut-ups – which is how I taught myself to create metaphors, but eventually I stopped and am trying to going more on my nerve these days. I rewrite something constantly while I’m working on it, so the first draft is also often the final draft, but only because I’ve reworked each line so many times in the initial stages. I think that a poem works best when each line follows on from the last, and builds a kind of momentum. To get that momentum, I have to work line by line.

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?

I only ever thought of my book as a book, when I was choosing the cover photo. I’m not very interested in concept poetry, and I have a narrow range of interests, so my books come out sounding thematically linked anyway. For me, each piece has to stand alone.

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

I used to hate doing poetry readings, because I usually hate attending poetry readings and you should do unto others etc etc. My preference is to consume art alone in my room. It’s not specific to poetry. I just like my house. I enjoy reading sometimes, but only when I’m performing particular pieces.

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 would never think about it like that, but I suppose all writers do. My questions around this recent book were: how do you write honestly about happiness? I know that sounds like an Eat Pray Love question but it was interesting to me. Sometimes I feel like Frank O’Hara was the only happy poet. It’s always been easy to magnify suffering & pain in poetry, because it feels so intrinsic to the form, but I found myself in a period of life where things were going really well, and I had to learn how to be honest about that too, which is harder than it sounds! I don’t think most good poetry answers questions though.

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 don’t think the role of the writer is any different to the role of the citizen.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I revised my first book so heavily, that by the time I sent it to a publisher it didn’t get changed much. I was lucky to have Ashleigh Young, a writer and friend as my editor, and I usually accept all her suggestions. 

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Writing advice is so arbitrary – the person whose advice makes the most sense to me is George Saunders, but people write in different ways. The best advice is just common sense, but I’m going to say it anyway, which is learn to work in the way that feels most natural to you. I spent years trying to change my processes based on advice that worked for other people, but I eventually gave it all up when I realised my writing worked best when I just ignored it and did what felt right.

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?

I work in retail most days, so I don’t have much of a routine. I write when I have the energy. That’s one of the luxuries of writing poetry I guess.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I switch between reading my favourite books and books by my contemporaries that I don’t like. That’s a terrible thing to say, but it’s true. The books I love fill me with excitement, and the books I don’t like make me feel competitive. Sometimes you have to make your emotional shortcomings work for you.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

I’ve moved so often I don’t have an honest answer to that question. Maybe my mother’s perfume – Elizabeth Arden’s sunflowers.

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?

Yes, of course. Most of the best writing happens outside of poetry. I love High Maintenance the tv show, Stewart Lee’s stand-up comedy, lyrics from people like Aldous Harding. I’ve been watching a lot of youtube streamers at the moment – Video Game Dunkey is one of the funniest people alive.

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


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

Solve a MURDER on a TRAIN. Also I really want to go to Minnesota. Does anyone want to bring me to Minnesota? There are some other writing related things I want to do, but I can’t say them without getting the emotional satisfaction that comes from saying you are doing a thing you haven’t actually done, and then forgetting you have to do it.

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?

Honestly, I’m not sure. It’s always felt obvious to me. There are other things I love, like music, that I don’t have a propensity for. One of the great advantages of writing is that you can be a total control freak, and you don’t have to play nicely with others. Most of the other art forms I love involve a certain amount of collaboration, so I don’t know if I would be happy.

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

You love what is familiar & comforting to you, and you love what you’re told you’re good at. I grew up in a house full of books, and my teachers and parents encouraged me to write. Sometimes I wonder if it’s really that basic, and usually, I have to concede that it is. It feels more mystical than that sometimes, but then I have to remember that mysticism is usually good luck with more jewellery on.  

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

The last great book I read was The Idiot by Elif Batuman. The last great film I saw was Lady Bird.

19 - What are you currently working on?

I never answer that question sorry!