Elizabeth Bachinsky reads K. Silem Mohammad

The Nose To, the Tens No, the Not Ens, the Sent On, the S o n n e t

“…she is very capricious; one cannot summon or foresee her; she comes as happiness comes, hands filled with an achievement that is already in flower.”

~ Rainer Maria Rilke, on rhyme.

K. Silem Mohammad is currently at work on Sonnagrams, a collection of poems in which the poet translates Shakespeare’s sonnets, line by line, into anagrams. The procedure goes something like this: the poet plugs a line of Shakespeare’s verse into an online anagram generator, the results of which serve as a sort of smorgasbord of poetic possibilities from which the poet sculpts a new line—and another and another until the poet has built a new sonnet. In this case, the new poem is complicated by an adherence to the metrical structure of the original sonnet (tricky!), although, admittedly, the poet is willing to break the rules, as it were, and drop a letter down a line or two for the sake of sense. The resultant poems look like this:

Overwhelm the Hot Depth of the Hush Muff

Unwholesome leather flagpoles gross me out;
I never may endure their bulging mass.
Abjection hatches random nests of doubt
When I am reading Newsweek in the grass.

Intense coyotes way hopped up on meth
(Mere formalists by virtue of their hats)
Cannot but shudder at the thought of death,
Although they dwell at Watergate with rats.

Those photogenic walruses are still
Unfocused in their smooth immunity
To styrofoam protrusions of the will,
And oft enough outwitted by a bee.

Are London bedbugs thought to be that tall,
That Mammoth Jack must huff to drub them all?


[Sonnet 44 (“If the dull substance of my flesh were thought”)]

It’s a task suited to poets with a penchant for meter and patterns and puzzles and it’s the sort of task that could probably drive a person crazy. I can relate. A few years ago I translated T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, as well as a number of other canonized poems, in a similar manner. So, for the sake of comparison, for the sake of spookiness—here’s my version of Milton’s “On His Blindness” from my first book of poetry, Curio (BookThug, 2005).

She Is Blond Sin

Dim, nephritic, yet single (whoosh!)
She’s a dandy kid.Why film her drear wilt and
Tease the wanton hidden clit?Oh had I that
Molten loadstone rebel—gum my thighs.She is down
To her panties.Revere her knees.Tada my
Darling!In time he ruts her cunt.My curt
Deus ex machina
goads both girl and Delt.Today
Only I partake in neither—devout—but
Soon that rumour (not greed) plies me.Don’t
Fight.She’s a Norse beast.Now I stroke her.
Baby my every limb seeks this state…hide, eh?His
Deep kiss taunts singly.Ding!Had I shod a bi
Dancer (post Streisand) taut and low—oh
Woo!What a dish!And to yell nasty verse!

(John Milton, “On His Blindness”)

This was the first poem I ever “anagrammed” and after writing it I felt as though I’d reached into Milton’s grave and poked the poor guy in the eye. It felt so irreverent, so freed. Which is, of course, why I continued to longer procedural projects. But the job was arduous. At the time, the Internet wasn’t so speedy as it is now, so I did it all by hand. I tried to maintain as close a mimetic structure to the original poems as possible, and I was firm with myself; I wasn’t allowed to carry letters on to following lines. After all, if a computer could come up with 500 alternatives for “April is the cruelest month, breeding” then surely I could come up with one. But no matter what nuances of craft there are between Mohammad’s procedure and mine, it’s the similarity of the end result that strikes me as simply wonderful.

Why wonderful? Because it’s as if we are two scientists who have chosen to conduct the same experiment, unbeknownst to one another, and have arrived at similar results. In a way, this proves the procedure is sound; that a sense of fun, diligence, and irreverence can lead to some formally interesting work. And I don’t use the word work lightly. The types of constraint-based poems Mohammad is invested in here are hard, hard work, not to mention there’s something reassuringly plebian about the end product. Anyone with the inclination can write these kinds of poems and come up with similar results. There’s nothing rarified about them and, so long as you are willing to leave your performer’s look-at-me-desire-for-recognition-of-virtuosity at the door, the poems require a poet abandon persona and allow procedure to take centre stage.

Mohammad writes:

The sonnagram feels full of intriguing possibilities to me right now, as it is poised at an interestingly liminal point between traditionally formal and experimentally procedural conceptions of constraint. The elements of “chance” and “intentionality” (in Jackson Mac Low’s sense of the words) are balanced, or held in tension with each other, so that the act of composition simultaneously involves a submission on my part to the felicities of the arbitrary linguistic draw, and an indulgence in a more traditional version of “craft.”

I’m quite happy to take this statement further and say I don’t see much difference at all between traditional forms of constraint-based writing and emergent traditions. Craft is craft is craft. Poets writing today have a particularly large pool from which to draw the elements of their work, and I think they write best who draw deep and draw often. Do I think projects like K. Silem Mohammad’s Sonnagrams will remain as Shakespeare’s sonnets have remained? Somehow, I doubt it. But perhaps that’s part of the charm of the anagram. They’re slippery. They want to mutate. Just when you think you’ve got one nailed to the page, it turns on you and slips away.
-Elizabeth BachinsKy, Vancouver 2008

Elizabeth Bachinsky is the author of Curio and Home of Sudden Service, which was nominated for a Governor General’s Award for Poetry in 2006. Her third book of poetry is forthcoming with Nightwood Editions, Spring 2009. She lives in Vancouver.

parc jarry, post storm

We enjoy compiling the slender catalogue of our city’s modesty.
–Lisa Robertson

The vast and bumpy green of the urban expanse is broken by a Maple. Silver, one would guess from the seat of one’s bicycle. Urban appears in description after description of parc Jarry, as if wishing to transform the suburban before our very eyes. But the parc seems to know itself, or at least what it isn’t. What makes the leap from suburban to urban? The congo drums, the number of couples lying on the ground making out? Is it scope? Scale of trees? Lack of design, or simply a matter of description? There is no wrought iron here, none of Olmstead’s curved paths leading to and from the fountain, which is a kind of question mark at the center of the scene. There are no bridges that elevate much more than footpaths, and one is always disturbed by the tags and bar codes dangling from the tree’s branches, the black netting sticking out from the earth’s seam.
On this day several women in hijabs, their sons (or grandsons) appearing to describe the fountain for them. What translation, one wonders? To what end? The gestures are punctuated with plastic figures, Hot Wheels ride the sky above their heads. The women (grandmothers), lean in from their stone perches calmly, eyes on the future. Perhaps they are aware of the several young women flagrantly reading magazines on a blanket, families with toddlers precarious and flighty as kites.

There is no trace of the visit from Pope John Paul II, no Jehovah’s Witnesses here today, not the sound of the Canadian Open, no crack of bat, not the echo of 70,000 plates being hand from one hand to another–not a clink–for no doubt those plates would have been paper, flimsy, and left smears of mustard and Ketchup on the grass.

This length, next to the traffic on boulevard Saint Laurent is noisy; traffic funneling toward Jean Talon. The parc prickles as the wheels of the bicycle traverses its lawn. An incline at the southern end fails to keep the energy from spilling over into the housing complex. The eye moves longingly and ends up back at the fountain. The parc has been home to the Montreal Expos who played their last game their on September 25, 1976, one learns, and after the Pope’s visit it was re-named for him, but the name didn’t stick, and by 1987 it was called Jarry again.

Space is never settled until it realizes its own potential. Or perhaps, it is simply never settled.

How we talk when we talk about writing…

What do we want from book reviews?? This is at the core of my How Poems Work and Guest Posts, what do we actually want from this genre of writing? What is the purpose? Consider the whole discussion–if it can be called that–of the recent Urqhuart anthology. What is at the center of these arguments? What seems clear to me over and over again is a very personal agenda. Couched albeit in nationalist gesture, there is little willingess in these diatribes to entertain what a larger vision of Candian literature might entail. That would not necessarily hold with a personal view on any genre of writing. A country is not a self. Nor is an anthology a self, or a country, though of course it is an attempt at a self to represent a kind of nation. That will generally result in less than, rubbing some the wrong way, if we had one master list we all agreed on I wouldn’t want to live in that country. No, what these arguments are really about it seems to me is bruised egos: my vision, my favorites, are not represented, therefore Urqhuart is a bad anthologist. I won’t even talk about the genderedness of the assault.

So how to talk about this in a way that’s meaningful and of interest to others? How to talk about flaws and lack in a way that makes others want to pick up, if not the anthology at the core of the discussion, then at least one or two of the books or authors being championed as forgotten gems? As far as this very willing reader is concerned the conversation left me with a feeling of nausea and absolutely no desire to want to read Canadian fiction whatsover. Is that what the purpose of all that discussion was??

Here is a link to a review of Michael Winter’s latest novel in Geist. The following is a letter sent to the magazine by Jonathan Ball, a PhD candidate at the U of C and editor of Dandelion.

Reception, New York Public Library

She takes your questions and she looks fabulous doing it. Sending people on for a glimpse into the Reading Room, or to the Ladies Room. She is part marble herself, and part sculpture with that swoop of slightly orange tinged hair. Are those sunglasses? Faux glasses? Is that collar as high as it need be? When slipping past to get a book there was a whiff of something mid-scale, a tad Elizabeth Arden. The Hound will not see the Woolf exhibit at the Grolier, and she misses the pencils only atmosphere of the Berg though she knows, we all know, that the bulk of the library’s contents are now online.

Laurie Anderson, elsewhere, and autumn in the air

Autumn in the air, and the lure of galleries, the clean walls, the sheen of matte concrete like hardened sand soft under foot.

This last week of August, the first week of September, like a funnel, shifting us back indoors. And so appropriately or not, a snippet of Laurie Anderson this morning from a great column in Art Forum called 500 words. My favorite word count.

I was feeling very detached in a lot of ways. Homeland currently begins with a quote from Aristophanes’s The Birds. Last summer, I performed it at the Herod Atticus at the Acropolis; it was the most hallucinatory experience to be quoting an ancient Greek play in an ancient theater in Greece. The theater was full of birds, and the story was, of course, about birds. There’s a part of Aristophanes’s play that describes a time before the world began. Since there was no land, only air, the birds were constantly in flight. The first bird was a lark, and one day, her father died, which was a colossal problem. Burying your parents was a big deal in Greek tragedy. What do you do with their bodies? So the lark is panicking, wondering what to do, and she finally decides to bury her father in the back of her own head. I describe this act as the beginning of memory, and to me, it had a haunting connection to our century, in terms of groundlessness—how much we’re detached from a sense of place. It’s all very theoretical, very digital. A lot of the stories in Homeland are about the disappearance of things. Record stores, phone booths—what it means when things turn into numbers, and how you deal with that.

The war was the thing that inspired this. And since this is Artforum, I’ll say I was really surprised at how quiet artists and intellectuals were, after Susan Sontag stopped talking. When I say Homeland is political, it’s in a very loose sense—though some of the work is quite specific. I’m sure some people will find it didactic. And I can see that reaction; it’s actually my biggest fear. As an artist, I want to create something that’s very open-ended and that gives people, myself first of all, a feeling of freedom. Something people could use as a way to get out of traps. I’m always looking for that: How do I get out of the most recent trap I’ve built?

Voyeur of a voyeur: Watching Laurie Anderson watch a film in the making by Laurie Anderson, Chelsea, 2007