Hazel Smith on Breaking Out of Tradition

H. L. Hix: I am interested by the “double stance” in your work: facing backward in its performative aspect, toward Homer and other exemplars of oral poetry, and facing forward in its new media interests, toward an increasingly digitized future.  Such a chronology oversimplifies things, I know, but I wonder how you see those two aspects of your work in relation to one another.

 

Hazel Smith: I like the idea that my work faces backwards and forwards, and I am certainly interested in both connecting with tradition and breaking out of it!! However there has been considerable interest in performance poetry in the 20th and 21st century, so I don’t see my interest in performance as only looking backwards, but rather as a contemporary transformation of orality. Sometimes it is a digitised orality too when my voice is manipulated technologically. There is another factor here also which is that I used to be a professional musician and am extremely interested in the whole idea of bringing words and sound together in performance.  My explorations in  performance and new media are in both cases related to the desire to find ways of expanding poetry beyond the page, and they are both connected to a my enthusiasm for working with new technologies. Some of my pieces, such as Time the Magician  (on the CDR of The Erotics of Geography) combine both.

 

Smith, Hazel.  The Erotics of Geography: poetry, performance texts, new media works.  TinFish Press, 2008.

Stephanie Strickland on Digital Literature

H. L. Hix: I get a lot of signals about its interest in digital media before the book begins, in the jacket copy, in the fact of its having an accompanying cd, etc.  If I were to start with the creaky false distinction between what is “inside” and “outside” the text, I would note the double entendre of “beam” on p. 5 — beam of steel or wood, beam of light — as the point at which I begin to understand from “within” the text that these poems will worry over our placement historically/culturally in the industrial age or the information age.  From your position as the writer “outside” the text, how do you experience the process of inviting slower readers such as myself, who came to poetry strictly through books, into the contemporary aesthetic/political issues raised for and about poetry by digital media?

 

Stephanie Strickland: I came to poetry orally, through nursery rhymes, lullabies, jump rope, and hopscotch; but I grew up with books in the industrial age, my father an engineer and my grandmothers both great, idiosyncratic readers. Even then, however, in the fifties of the last century, there were oscilloscopes in my basement.

 

I was introduced to digital literature (then, e-fiction) in the mid-nineties, attending the first NEH summer seminar on digital lit, taught by N. Katherine Hayles, to which I applied as an “independent scholar,” poet, and representative from a public arts center.

 

Almost everyone I know today has more digital equipment than I do (since I don’t own even a cell phone), and most also have a firmer (more aggressive, or more ideological) idea about what poetry is. Though the most salient characteristic of urban life in the wealthier parts of the globe is the complex inter-penetration of virtual and gravitational, and though many can’t remember a pre-digital world, they’re still not sure what e-poetry is—an art in its infancy swiftly evolving.

 

I find the best way to invite people toward e-poetry is to show it to them, read it to them, and talk with them about it. Often one needs to learn how to “work” or “play” e-poetry, as it is an application, a poetic “instrument” which creates a poetry of movement and behavior. To invite writers, specifically, toward e-poetry, I teach workshops which greatly extend the kinds of poems they write and appreciate. We read e-poetry but don’t directly write it unless, as often happens, the students’ own written experiments lead them on. I do refer to examples, like Emily Dickinson’s folded envelope poems made with pins, the 3-d appreciation of which requires a digitally implemented presentation.

 

Processes of play, discovery, and reflection generally bring people to digital literature unless they have a fixed commitment to the fixity of print. The fixity of print, however, is a 500-year-old anomaly in the many-thousand-year-old history of world poetry, evolving and adaptive in both oral and written forms.

 

Strickland, Stephanie.  Zone : Zero.  Ahsahta Press, 2008.

 

Michael Penny on Messed-Up Peace

H. L. Hix: After describing an auto accident in which “Your yellow car slides on the icy road / and turns its driver / upside-down,” § 46 tells the reader “You now know / there are so many ways to find peace.”  Not all of them, as the car wreck shows, present themselves as ways to find peace.  Is it fair to take this as a theme that is (at least implicitly) present throughout the book, not confined to this one poem?  In other words, to take other sections, too, not only § 46, as identifying ways to find peace?

 

Michael Penny: Much of Particles is about the difference between existing and non-existing. I equate “non-existing” with peace, and so the book might be about how existence, as much fun as it is, messes that up.

 

 

Michael Penny.  Particles.  McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011.

 

Heather Simeney MacLeod on the Aftermath of Art and the Remains of Sin

H. L. Hix: A number of the poems in The Little House are about paintings, or at least make reference to particular paintings.  Is there any sense in which the poems themselves (not only the ones about paintings) are themselves paintings?  Obviously, I mean that metaphorically: employ principles that they share with painting, etc.  One reason I ask is that “Be All My Sins Remembered, A Poem on the Confessional” seems a poem unto itself, different in some way from the others, so I wonder whether whatever answer you give applies to that poem as well as to the others in the book.

 

Heather Simeney MacLeod: Thank you for the opportunity to be a part of “In Quire: A Crossing Point for Ideas, Words, Images, and Energies.” Your complex question has proven challenging in the best of ways and has returned me to my collection The Little Yellow House, which has been (as I am mired in preparing to defend my dissertation) a welcome delight.

 

As you point out, there are a number of poems in The Little Yellow House that are and make reference to paintings. My interest was not to describe a painting in a poem. Rather, my intention particularly around the poems engaged with paintings was to, of course, share the emotional experience of the painting but to go beyond the painting, to extend the poem into the aftermath, the leftover residue of being exposed to a piece of art. I wanted to give my consideration not only to the traits directly accessible in an object, but to attempt to represent traits outside the material aspects of the work that I struggled to capture. Though I did not set out to construct poems that possessed painting-like qualities, I do realize that many of the poems in The Little Yellow House are similar to a still life or a portrait. In this collection of poems, I am often describing one moment. In this way, “Be All My Sins Remembered, A Poem on the Confessional” deviates from the other pieces somewhat in structure but certainly not intent.

 

In “Be All My Sins Remembered, A Poem on the Confessional,” the second stanza refers to Saint Margaret standing over a representation of Lucifer as a dragon. The image is from the Flanders Book of Hours; however, as you have so deftly pointed out this poem is different from the others. Instead of using one painting or drawing the reader’s attention to a single piece of art, or an extended moment this poem relies upon the confessional and the Seven Deadly Sins as points of intersection and departure. Its intent remains akin to the other poems in that it seeks to share an emotional experience. It, like many of the other poems in the collection, moves beyond or outside of the parameters to consider the remains, in this case, of confessing and of sin. It echoes earlier pieces in the collection, such as “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Orbs,” “When Erin Fought Beside Joan of Arc,” as well as “She Remembers.” However, unlike these other pieces, it does not turn-over concepts of circular existence. I suggest that this poem does, as you have suggested, stand outside the others; yet, I hope it does the work I wanted it to in that it resonates beyond confessing, beyond regret, and beyond mistakes.

 

 

Heather Simeney MacLeod.  The Little House.  McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012.

Philip Metres on Refusing to Cede the Story of Our Nation

H. L. Hix: Your book starts with the observation that “exclusion of dissenting voices… has continued throughout our history” (4), but implies near the end that the exclusion may be more complete now than ever, since “war’s televisual representation… nullified the kinds of lyric responses upon which war resister poets traditionally relied” (197).  If the exclusion is more intense than ever, what justifies the sorts of hope you express in your coda?

 

Philip Metres: There are at least two ways to address this question—via the personal (i.e. my own story vis-à-vis poetry and the peace movement) and intellectually.  My own journey through Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront since 1941 had many stages.  It was borne out of an intellectual and poetic attempt to understand the failure and despair of peace activists (myself included) during and after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when I was a junior in college.  I was stunned by what seemed to me a mass psychosis, in which everyone huddled around the television (myself included) as if it were an intense sporting match—but which was a war not unlike any other, though the corpses themselves were disappeared in the official media coverage.  Journalists—particularly the television media—seemed more interested in making amends for its purported liberal bias during the Vietnam War, to heal the wounds of the Vietnam defeat; I can see it now as a classic example of what Richard Slotkin called “redemption through violence,” in his pivotal work of American history, Gunfighter Nation.

 

Years later, researching the multiple pasts of the American peace movement, I was buoyed by the steady courage and flinty audacity of dissenters and resisters, and found myself involved in a full-scale historical “recovery project.”  As I was completing the book, the attacks of September 11th caused a complete reassessment of my entire argument—in which I radically questioned every presumption I’d made over ten years and 300 pages—but eventually I returned to the abiding conviction that the peace movement (aided and abetted by poetic work within and through peace) is an essential brake in a nominally democratic society to its imperial ambitions.  Once I gave up the arrogant idea that the peace movement should be judged only by whether it stopped specific wars, I was able to see its modest pragmatic successes; as importantly, I could now see its essential moral (indeed, spiritual) labor of witnessing to our common humanity.  Long story short, at least for the moment, I feel as if I’ve made peace with the peace movement’s own limits, its marginality, its “ineffectuality,” its quixotic and utopian tendencies.

 

Incidentally, the peace movement and poetic production share their common sensitivity to the watchful gaze of the Other, the generations of the past and future.  Our work is an attempt to dialogue with the dead and to create a model of being that might be worthy of our possible futures.  I am haunted by a quotation from Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, at the end of her chapter on war:

 

Yet from a distance of many centuries, we often ask why they permitted it; for it is a universal fate of those from whom the power to author their own fate has been retracted that later populations reattribute to them the power of authorship and speak of them as ‘permitting’ it.  This question is not only asked, retrospectively, of the slaves forty centuries ago, but of the concentration camp prisoners four decades ago.  The same question, however unfair, will be asked of us. If there is to be an answer to those future populations, it will only be heard in the words spoken to contemporary military and political leaders, words that will have to be spoken very clearly and soon….(italics mine)

 

What words would we like to have said, what actions would we have wished we’d have committed, had we the chance?  What will they say of us?  (Incidentally, it is in the arena of ecological abuse—part of a larger system of domination which includes war-making—that I feel this question most loudly).

 

Now, the other way to answer your question is to say that you’ve conflated “dissenting voices” with “lyric responses”—and indeed, two different historical moments in the book, the Persian Gulf War moment and the Iraq War moment.  On the contrary, dissenting voices are themselves increasingly accessible (to those who are looking to find them), thanks to a proliferation of digital technologies—perhaps more accessible and wide-ranging than they have been in human history; however, their availability has not substantially mitigated the enormous power blocs that they decry—the military-industrial-security complexes that continue to proliferate.

 

What I was referencing toward the end of the book was the way in which poetry itself—in particular, a poetry based on the illusion of authentic voice, transparent image, and containable narrative—seemed particularly outflanked by the technowizardry and media savvy of Department of Defense self-representation.  In a sense, this is the argument that language poets articulated in the period between the Vietnam War and the Gulf War 1991—which is why, incidentally, for me, the best poem about the Gulf War is Barrett Watten’s Bad History.  Its poetic strategic perfectly and perversely matched that war’s representation for American civilians—one in which where all dissent was ridiculed, undercounted, or ignored; in which we were invited to see the Patriot Missile as “the war’s first hero;” and in which reporters were utterly censored and kept away from the scene of battle, thus ensuring that the state could assert its own triumphalist narrative, without alternative.

 

Indeed, why should one hope at all, if, as Foucault argues, repressive state power has simply morphed from brute force to the discipline of surveillance and internal self-repression?  Why should one hope at all, if, as poststructuralist Marxists argue, all acts of dissent and resistance are so swiftly and easily commodified (Billy Bragg: “revolution is just a t-shirt away!”).

 

All of this makes a certain sense.  But the Gulf War did not end wars.  When the Berlin Wall fell, history did not end.  Things change.  What is an absolutely true statement, in a few years, no longer holds.  The difference between the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq—between a war of retribution and a war of imperial choice—made the peace movement reappear, as if out of nowhere.  But it was always there, in the small actions of people like Cindy Sheehan, who don’t usually make the evening news, who said “our grief is not a cry for war.”

 

Somehow, we “hope against hope,” to use the title of Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoir, whose hope was articulated by her holding by heart hundreds of her martyred husband’s poems, whose manuscripts had all been destroyed during the Stalinist years.  In the book, I articulated my hope on the level of rhetorical address, when I made the decision in the coda to shift from my discussion of the peace movement in the third person to the first person plural; in other words, I implicated myself in the possibilities and limits of poetic involvement in the peace movement.  The coda, which deals with poetry and the peace movement after 9/11 and amidst Iraq, is a performative call into being that which already exists but has not been named as such—a widespread rapprochement between poets and the peace movement, between poets of various competing schools, who see a common need for a poetry that refuses to cede the story of our nation (and, of our other allegiances) to the pundits and demogogues.  I’m still working out, in my poetry and in my daily activism, what that rapprochement might look like, but the Come Together: Imagine Peace anthology of peace poems was one attempt, my poetry project, “Sand Opera,” another, and the “Stories of War and Peace,” project, interviewing peace activists, yet another.

 

Metres, Philip.  Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront Since 1941.  Univ. of Iowa Press, 2007.

David Keplinger on Carsten René Nielsen’s Vision of the Mythical in the Ordinary

H. L. Hix: “Carrier Pigeon” (32) seems to suggest that transformations are multiple, various, and perpetual.  There’s a strong tradition in literature of metamorphosis as a theme and metaphor (with Ovid as the most obvious exemplar).  How would you speak of Mr. Nielsen’s poetry in relation to that tradition?

 

David Keplinger: Nielsen’s poetry finds its roots in the French Symbolist tradition of Rimbaud and Baudelaire; it is a tradition in which metaphor is used to infuse the world with mystery once the divine correspondences in nature are debunked by Darwin. Nielsen is a scientist, though. He sees transformations not in the myth world but in the everyday world, as Darwin did — he sees a heart behaving like a dog, and an ape behaving like a man. His way of infusing the world with myth is to see the mythical in the ordinary, and to speak with the language of a neighbor observing someone’s underwear hanging on the line. The prose poem is his microscope slide. Everything oozes together in that space, turning into everything else.

 

Nielsen, Carsten René.  The World Cut Out with Crooked Scissors: Selected Prose Poems.  Trans. David Keplinger.  New Issues, 2007.

Sarah Pinder on Re-Listening

H. L. Hix: Very early in the book, a passage reads: “… your hand a weapon, // just touching a plant or a child / in this place, just following orders, listening / well — that’s where trouble waits” (7).  I kept hearing that passage resonate as I read what followed.  I know I’m posing you a false dilemma, so of course one response might be to reject the terms of the question, but: is this book (intended to be) the listening well, or the waiting trouble?

 

Sarah Pinder: My project in making these poems was to try to get quiet enough to listen consistently. There was also the element of return – listening, then re-listening, or listening again, with new information. Particularly in certain sections like Fuel and Archipelagos, I wanted to write those overheard snippets in ways that mimicked my thought processes – I’m a pretty restless thinker, and wanted to write through the ambient thought-drift in an intentional way.

 

 

Sarah Pinder.  Cutting Room.  Coach House Books, 2012.

Erin Knight on Chasing Both Cure and Diagnosis

H. L. Hix: The epigraph from The Plague (“Ah,” Rieux said, “a man can’t cure and know at the same time. So let’s cure as quickly as we can. That’s the more urgent job.”) seems like a clue about how to read the book, but I’m curious about what kind of clue.  Rieux’s position is that one can’t cure and know, so better just to cure.  Chaser is full of poems in which the relation between curing and knowing matters.  Is it written in affirmation of Rieux’s position, or as an “argument” against Rieux’s position, a way of saying that we can’t separate curing and knowing?

 

Erin Knight: A “cure-chaser” was a consumptive who travelled to warmer climates in pursuit of health. I wrote these poems while thinking about how we live our lives chasing both cure and diagnosis, in a kind of frenzy for knowledge about how the body will fail. So I would say that the book is acting more as an argument against Rieux’s opinion, because I don’t believe that “knowing” and “curing” can be separated. Our desire to understand is too great.

 

What we know changes how we cure, of course, but it also changes how we understand the “job” of the invalid.  For instance, before the tubercule bacillus was discovered, a physician would make a diagnosis of consumption based on the invalid’s entire personal history, habits and interests. Now, all that’s needed is a skin test or a swab—it’s the presence of the bacillus that matters, not the identity of the patient.

 

There’s something about our current condition that compels us to want to be diagnosed, to become a patient. (Or perhaps “want” is the wrong word: “resigned” might be more accurate, an acceptance that we are in a state of pre-diagnosis.) People will subject themselves to everything from food sensitivity testing to full-body CT scans to genome-mapping…all in the hopes that the thing that ails us might be identified.

 

I do find Rieux’s position compelling, though. Sometimes it seems that we can’t cure and know at the same time, as he says. The workings of the body are still so mysterious. The body goes on healing itself, performing its small miracles, even as it may be about to fail in other ways.

 

 

Erin Knight.  Chaser.  Anansi, 2012.

Rob Winger on Clandestine Form

H. L. Hix: All the stanzas in the book fulfill the “normal” couplet customary in the ghazal, except one: “(Wait.  Wait just a minute.)” (40).  For me, this calls to mind not only the Rilke that, because Rilke has just been mentioned in the poem, it’s supposed to call to mind (e.g. Rilke’s imperative to “await with deep humility and patience the birth-hour of a new clarity”), but also imperatives to wait in Agnes Martin (“Defeated, having no place to go you will perhaps wait and be overtaken”), Nietzsche (“Slow is the experience of all deep wells: long must they wait before they know what fell into their depth”), and others.  Are these — the poems in this collection — poems of waiting?

 

Rob Winger: All the poems in this book, I think, actively dismantle old concepts of inspirational influence; but, at the same time, they also await new models for it.  Any moment between such dismantling and re-building is probably where the “waiting” you mention occurs, and that’s an essential moment, for me at least, in all writing.

 

Perhaps Canadian poet Phyllis Webb can elucidate what I mean by that. Rather than calling her battle with poetic ancestors an anxiety (and she was anxious, because all of her teachers were men!), she once inverted the old notion of poetic mastery by turning Mr. Bloom on his head.  The result is something that she calls “the influence of anxiety” instead of The Anxiety of Influence: the idea that your discomfort with where you’ve come from is what inspires novelty or insight or observation in your poems, not what cripples it or forces you somehow to “overcome” the influence of those you love most. I love that.

 

Part of the idea of waiting, as I understand it at least, also seems inherent in the ghazal form, itself, particularly in the best examples of its free-verse incarnation in English since the 1960s.  The superlative ghazal poet John Thompson, for example, whose Stilt Jack introduced the form to Canada (and to me), perhaps explains this best by claiming that the order of the form is “clandestine” rather than logical, resident within the “half-truths” that Keats wanted to harness so badly, happy to stay within mystery rather than nailing everything down with categorical certainty.

 

And, of course, when I write “Wait just a minute,” I’m staging a conversation between my personal and writing voices.  That’s why the previous couplet asks “Where’s your Rilke, Rob?” – it’s a real question without an adequate answer.  So what I mean by “Rilke” here is far less direct than you suggest – “Rilke” represents, to me, an inspired, transformational figure that absolutely re-creates those that he most influences.  For me, when I was still a young, teenaged writer, that figure was Joe Strummer or Bob Dylan or Bono.  In recent decades, it’s many other new heroes, only some of whom are writers (American poets Matthew Zapruder and Dean Young two recent editions to that catalogue for me).

 

Finally, I think it’s important to point out what comes after this little pause in the poem that you’ve asked about.  The next couplet, the final one in the poem, is this: “This is no frog match. / There’s only me.”  The “frog match” refers to poetry competitions that Basho staged with his apprentices by organizing weekend getaway poetry tournaments in which everyone would try to create the best, “winning” poems.  The writers would go away and write for a while, then come back and challenge one another with their creations; Basho judged and declared winners (the contest was named after frogs because of Basho’s famous haiku about the frog splashing into the pond, which was considered beyond improvement).  In a real sense, by the end of my small poem, I’ve pitched out notions of eternal verse or enlightened comparative universalisms or economies of art that insist on making something better, best, novel, or new; instead, in the end, there’s only me and the page.  When I was writing these poems, deep in the throes of trying to complete my doctoral thesis, that was more than enough for me.

 

 

Rob Winger.  The Chimney Stone.  Nightwood Editions, 2010.

Barbara Jane Reyes on Apocalypse

H. L. Hix: The phrase “The opposite of Eden” (33) is applied in its immediate context to Vietnam, but I wonder if you would affirm my sense that it is much more broadly applicable in the book: that a strong current in the book is a depiction of the U.S. as the opposite of the Eden it presents itself as being?

 

Barbara Jane Reyes: I think of the opposite of Eden in biblical terms; if Eden is Genesis, creation, and paradise, a place of optimism about possibility, then its opposite would be Revelation, destruction, and apocalypse, a place of apprehension about possibility.

 

The Book of Revelation is interesting to me because of its coded, vivid, metaphorical language. It’s a language against empire, written under the conditions of division and collapse. As an American, this does sound like familiar, contemporary circumstances.

 

Apocalypse is interesting to me as well; it is not absolute end but the end of something. This what revolution means: something ends and something else begins. I suppose those who dread apocalypse are those who benefit from the way things currently are.

 

Reyes, Barbara Jane.  Poeta en San Francisco.  TinFish Press, 2005.