Thursday, September 18, 2014

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Sarah Campbell

Sarah Campbell's recent books include We Used to Be Generals (2014) and Everything We Could Ask For (2010). Her literary criticism has appeared in Jacket 2, Arizona Quarterly, and The Golden Handcuffs Review. Radio pieces have aired on WNYC and as podcasts for the Poetry Foundation.

10 questions, answered

1. The work
Seven years ago, the proportions of my poetry began changing: almost overnight, everything got shorter. As this minimalism set in, I increasingly confined myself to a limited vocabulary. We Used to Be Generals continues in the confines of this particular "condensary" (to borrow from Niedecker).

Until I feel I'm not learning from it anymore, I’ll continue to work with this mode. It's still generative and challenging, even as it becomes increasingly familiar. It feels a bit like a relationship, living this long with a form and focus.

In the past year, I've also been playing around with different methods, using more direct collage and appropriation methods for longer series poems--and having fun being more playful and grabby.

6. Concerns
In this book, I'm interested in how the individual proceeds with the inheritance of the “generals” that used to be. The "used to be" registers in oblique snapshots in the poems: the friendship that rescues and then ebbs, expeditions to far-flung places, the “back to back” grind of one person and their relation to the company they keep/work for. Also, it’s a bit about aging and the deaths that come before dying.

What else? A person’s relation to him/herself, which is, if not epic, then at least the longest relationship from which there’s no “breaking up.” By rotating the cast of personal pronouns, I want to unfix the “I” so that it doesn't anchor the speeches, no matter how specific they sound. I understand self-expression as composite, uncertain, stolen, and shared.

7. The writer and culture
Use the poem as a kind of tool or machine for zooming in and out, for measuring and focusing on things we otherwise can't or don't see. As a goal, poems nudge, poke, or elsewise elbow the reader to figure something out, using that poem-machine. At best, the experience of reading (working over/with) the poem helps the audience see or think something the writer herself didn't imagine. The poem becomes more a part of the world (of culture) when it changes someone or something--even if just for a moment.

9. Advice
My friend Samina went to a swimming camp last summer. They told her, "Focus on the next stroke and make it a good one." That's advice I can use every day.

12. Inspiration
Walks, trips, a change of scenery. 

Reading, even without aim or conclusion.

Great writing inspires, of course. For instance, recently was reading Pattie McCarthy's book, marybones-- just a few pages in, McCarthy's poetry made me want to pick a pen, got me thinking about returning to a history-based project I'd thought about ages ago, but never got off the ground.

Listening to writers, artists, and historians talk about their own fixations and research almost always makes me want to get to work.

Encountering un-great or ill-conceived or almost-there-but-not-quite works can inspire me too, in a different way. When I can see the gaps or bulks in other work, I feel driven to go make something tighter (even if totally different). Deconstructing things makes me then want to go build something.

15. Important writer
Henry James is like home. I go to him, go back to him, and keep on calling.  For his acrobatic writing, his playfulness, his wonderful convolutions, his elaborate architectures, fussy fastidiousness, and sly humor--and a well-sustained curiosity about people's minds related to but also marvelously different from his brother William's. For all our differences in space and time and culture, I feel he really gets people in a way I want to too, and sometimes do. He was a watcher--and what an eye he has for what is idiosyncratic and shared, disguised and also gleaming in people's behavior.

16. What I would like to do
Take a really long walk-- several weeks long.

17. Other occupation
Museum curator

19. Last great book

20. Current work
A conceptual series poem called "Space from Space, or: How to See" lifting language from the color keys for NASA's satellite images of Earth. While thinking about the Nazca Lines carved ~ 400 AD into the Peruvian desert, biomorphs and geoglphys arguably best seen from high above, still visible today.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Little Red Leaves: Kasimor, MacPherson + Davidson

I’m slowly sifting through my stack of elegantly designed chapbooks from Little Red Leaves Textile Editions, designed and sewn by Dawn Pendergast, including three wildly different yet incredibly playful works: The Windows Hallucinate (2013) by Mary Kasimor, Sheep Dip Excerpts (2013) by Doug MacPherson, and Arcanagrams: A Reckoning (2014) by Amanda Davidson. There is the most interesting cadence present in the work of Minnesota poet Mary Kasimor, staggered and staccato through a series of spacings and capitalizations:

multipl e s of              wine

Sin ersshining   s in bla c k e
ye black  s in in multipl e s of
los  t cha nces overt hehil l
&  char co al out lin e s      cert

aintyp  e s o f belief s i n  sin
hl e   fil  e o n a flat ho riz o n
sta r s s pea k  i    n for e
ngba   l  lso f ten  wine

The author of three trade poetry collections—& cruel red (Otoliths, 2010), silk string arias (BlazeVox Books, 2008) and The Landfill Dancers (BlazeVox Books, 2014)—Kasimor nearly speaks in a coded language, hidden within such familiar English. Her poems manage to explore and challenge sound and meaning while moving quickly across the page, revealing an unusual (and even refreshing) cadence that I would be interested to hear her perform, such as in the opening of her poem “a starry night,” that reads:

Plants speak in CODE tongue
WALKERS in desert
talK straight

Dope IS for THOS
Who EXHale A

STARRY night WHEN the painter
DRoppeD over for

Around WAITing for Kool Aid

in the JUNGLE the plants
HABITAT was involved IN
A Sting OPERation
WHO knew?

As the colophon of San Francisco/Tahoe poet Doug MacPherson’s Sheep Dip Excerpts reads: “This collection of poems is an excerpt from a larger work called sheep dip, a creative translation of O Guardador de Rebnhos by Fernando Pessoa, who wrote it under the persona of Alberto Caeiro, a shepherd. It is also in conversation with two English translations of Pessoa’s book—The Keeper of Sheep by Edwin Honig and Susan Brown and Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person by Erin Mouré.”

No 16
            for Altus
who would publish me minha living life as an office boy?
squeaking early morning down the road with my cart
returning with my cart at dusk down the same road

i have no tinge of hope i have these wheels
i am getting old without wrinkles or gray hair
i am no longer of service take off my wheels
i am left upside down and broken at the bottom of a drain

While I’m unaware of the Honig and Brown title he speaks of, MacPherson’s translations are certainly far straighter than the work in Mouré’s Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person [see the piece I wrote on such here], without the vibrancy she worked through her own transelation of the same text. Still, this is certainly a compelling collection, and I’m intrigued to see what the full text looks like, once its published in trade form. MacPherson manages, through his sequence of numbered translations, to respond to Pessoa’s original text in intriguing ways.

No 49

i go inside fetch a channel tracy with candle says night
minha voice content says night minha life sighs to day check
of sun saved rain afternoons pass on channel O last hello
friend soggy trees deposit Os i fetch another channel light a
candle night of withouts course like a river bed and four big
silences like days that sleep

The most compelling of these three works has to be Amanda Davidson’s wonderfully playful Arcanagrams: A Reckoning, which responds, in part, to the works of Swedish scientist Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), best known for his book on the afterlife, Heaven and Hell (1758). Davidson’s bio includes the fact that she is “currently at work on a performance novel about the mystic Swedenborg,” and she includes this intriguing fact in the colophon of the short collection: “‘Dromböken,’ on page twelve, is a cut-up poem using text from Swedenborg’s Journal of Dreams. This English-language edition was translated from the Swedish by my great-great-grandfather, Carl Theophilus Odhner (Bryn Athen, Pennsylvania: The Academy Book Room, 1918). This book is now in the public domain.” I’m fascinated by her interest in the work of Swedenborg, especially given her personal connection to him and his work, and wonder (in the “chicken-and-egg” way) which may have come first, her interest in his work, or her knowledge of such a connection?


I was neither in a state of sleep nor wakefulness.

Throughout the whole night I seemed to be
going deep down, by ladders and other spaces.

This signified moving from celestial to natural

I slept deeply for eleven hours
I dreamt I was being punished
I dreamt of a woman
I dreamt of cages
I was arrested
Climbed down
I flew

This signifies inmost affection from the Lord
This signifies the grand man
This signifies natural truths
This signifies the highest heaven
This signifies I had not washed my feet
I spoke long and familiarly with our Successor
who changed into a woman.

What it may signify is best known to our Lord.

In the morning my eyesight was so improved that I
could read the Bible without glasses.

What this signifies I do not know.

Something will happen to me after I finish the first
chapter on the sense of touch.

Whether I am to take one road in my work or am
being prepared for another, I know not; it is dark
to me.

I was not able to have the strong faith I ought to
have. I believed and yet did not believe.

Once again I was thrown onto my face.

I do not know what this means.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Hoa Nguyen, Red Juice: Poems 1998 – 2008


You shall hear the story
You shall hear the story how Pau-Puk-Keewis danced
at Hiawatha’s wedding
The student cried “Hurrah!”
The student cried “Now you have it!”
I must have more light
I must have what I asked for
Your presence will not be necessary

The wonderful thing about American poet, editor, publisher, expatriate and current Toronto resident Hoa Nguyen’s [see my profile on her here] new collection, Red Juice: Poems 1998 – 2008 (Seattle WA/New York NY: Wave Books, 2014), is knowing it collects all of her published work prior to her third and most recent collection, As Long As Trees Last (Seattle WA/New York NY: Wave Books, 2012) [see my review of such here]. Collecting the work of her two trade collections—Your Ancient See Through (Subpress, 2002) and Hecate Lochia (Hot Whiskey Press, 2009)—as well as a small handful of chapbooks including Dark (Mike & Dale’s Books), Parrot Drum (Leroy Chapbook Series), Let’s Eat Red for Fun (Boog Lit), Red Juice (effing press), Add Some Blue (Backwoods Broadsides), Poems (Dos), What Have You (Longhouse) and Kiss a Bomb Tattoo (effing), it becomes interesting to see the trajectory in Nguyen’s work spread across some two hundred and fifty pages. While striking over the pages of her first few small publications, it is through the publication of the chapbook Red Juice in 2005 where her work really begins to solidify. The first piece that really catches is the poem “Up Nursing,” which opens both the chapbook and book-section “Red Juice” of the new Red Juice: Poems 1998 – 2008, and packs an enormous amount in a very small space. 


Up nursing         then make tea

The word war is far
says my boy                 about the cat

I think anthrax
                & small pox vax

Pour hot water on dried nettles
Filter more water for the kettle

Why try
to revive the lyric

In just a few short lines, she manages to articulate small observations and frustrations on the domestic, the mundane and the lyric, highlighting a series of packed and pressured silences. After originally appearing in the chapbook, the poems in this section were incorporated into the trade collection Hecate Lochia, a book rich with blood, laundry, domestic patterns and children’s birthday parties. In fact, it was Hecate Lochia that first brought her work to a larger attention throughout the United States, showcasing a poet serious in her articulation of small moments, and how the fantastic can be buried deep within. As part of an interview for a profile I wrote on her for Open Book: Ontario, Nguyen responded:

I write poems one at a time and tend not to approach the page with an idea, concept or project in mind. I write in engagement with and informed by other poets. What this looks like is that I’m deeply reading a full-length volume of poetry — or a selected or collected volume; I’m noticing different rhetorical happenings in the poems, their patterns and use of language. And then after reading a section of poems aloud (this I do with a group of poets participating in the private workshops I lead), I write by inviting these strategies as I write while still experiencing their language or voice in my body and other sites of reception.

Throughout Red Juice: Poems 1998 – 2008, Nguyen’s poems are composed entirely of presence, of articulating a series of particular moments in which the narrator/author are entirely present, whether the classroom, the kitchen, the bedroom or the yard, as well as in the far-larger scope of the world. In his introduction to the collection, poet and critic Anselm Berrigan describes Nguyen’s poems thusly: “Immediately apparent inside Nguyen’s poetry, to me ast least, was a command of voice as an ongoing structural phenomenon, built through diction and velocity while giving off an implicit belief in the agency of a life and the agency of a poem, at once.” Further on:

Phrase by phrase Nguyen’s work can be conversational, playful, funny, angry, acutely self-aware, and loaded with sensory information. The poems’ accrual of emotional significance (an aspect of their form) is evenly distributed among points of consciousness and their attendant pressures: the continuous need to assert the oddity of action that makes up a self; the necessary figuring and refiguring of love and intimacy in a shared space; bringing babies who become children with their own relationships to language into that space (“Would you like a K sandwich?”); anxiety about money, time, work, art, family, upbringing, the question of fate, the murkiness of origin; resistance to the notion of permanent war as a public, domestic, agreed-upon mind frame in which to take part, while reckoning nonetheless with the body counts.

It is through everything that Berrigan brings up, as well as the way she blends so much of it in the simple cadence of a couple of lines, such in the poem “No One Wants,” writing: “Driving a hole / in the ozone layer // Grey transformer box / hulks in the backyard / and we have the 60th anniversary / of the bombing of Hiroshima[.]” Or here:


What your dark eyes take back
to itself, hugged in a curve
of toughness. The land between us is flat.
Let’s say we are ruined, Minneapolis,
bricked against ourselves. A red rag
in the kitchen. This isn’t important or I am.

I never wanted to touch you
and still do. How can we pray or find
what collects in heaven, Father?
I’d be surprised by elegance,
meaning something like rugs
and leather. Soft and tough. This.

I want belief like this. Leaving
the sea is a rag doll I once was. Texas
clouds in dreams, swinging. My loving you
once, mud puddle, swing set.

I’m curious to know if any of the works in the new collection were previously uncollected, or if all had appeared prior in chapbook or book form. Given the absence of any more recent work, as well, might this suggest a new collection looms somewhere over the horizon?