“Textual Telephone”: Melanie Bell on Susan Holbrook and Nicole Markotić’s “Q & A”

Is it worth the portage? Maple or hickory-smoked? Are you serious? Which is worse? You and what army?

Sift words into his package. My apple OR hickey OR most. You’re so serious. I changed the Ors. U an I warm the real, open the how.

Oh, Anne’s Anne. How’s your moist O-ply pummelling? Fresh ground pepper, swift dints in your whisper cage? You’re the serious one, pesto change-O. O and O worm the roll, owe the ooh.

O + A = A. How’s your math? Opala! Melt freshly ground Swift into John Cage. Pepper with whistles and serious Presto! To change: O – O = O.

Q + A = A. Who’s your moth? Op art! Freshet swift over Cajun ground. O whippoorwill pest! No means no means no. Oh.

Q & A + whose mouth? Apart.

I met Susan Holbrook at Coach House and Snare Books’ 2009 Fall launch in Montreal, where she had the room in hysterics with a witty Oulipo (or “foulipo”) rewrite of tampon instructions:

Take a deep Brecht and relapse . . . . Most Wimbledon need a few triumphs before they can comfortably and easily insert a tam-o’-shanter.

Holbrook’s latest poetry collection, Joy Is So Exhausting, is full of such clever, perceptive pieces. “Nursery”, the final long poem, is a compilation of thoughts jotted down by Holbrook while nursing her infant daughter, and merits special note for its melding of Holbrook’s typical innovation with true tenderness. Many of the poems, like “Insert” (the tampon poem), engage with various source texts in some form of recombinant practice or translation. Federico Garcia Lorca’s poetry is translated based on a combination of meaning and sound. Letters between Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson are transcribed with deliberate misreadings (“I am practicing lejibibity, do you recognise it”). News headlines are recombined in Sudoku puzzle format (“Same vote issue sex free on proposes Harper marriage”). Many of Holbrook’s poems are worthy of critical attention, but I was particularly struck by “Q & A”, written in collaboration with writer Nicole Markotić. In what resembles a game of textual telephone, Holbrook begins with a series of questions, Markotić translates them based on sound, and on they go through six iterations. The first few lines of each begin this post.

Holbrook’s initial stream of questions, peppered with the language of commercialism (“How would you like an all-expenses-paid trip to sunny Cozumel, Mexico?”), makes for delightful play. The addressee shifts back and forth, from intimate to customer to “a handsome mister cat”. Stream of consciousness? It seems more likely that Holbrook was deliberate in crafting consecutive queries that are irreverently irrelevant.

Through the iterations, questions become declarations, letters, snatches of other languages, algebra, and answers:
Are you serious? / You’re so serious.
How long does it have to be? / Long: it has to be long.
Why me? / That’s why.

There is continuous, and continually playful, conversation here. The diction remains colloquial, with statements and questions aimed outward. There is enough call and response to feel engaged and enough nonsense and shifting to feel like an eavesdropper who hasn’t quite caught on. As a reader, it becomes hard to distinguish the two poets’ voices. The tone is at once confident and startlingly disjunctive.

Holbrook notes the revelations of self that were part of this process of translation:

“One would think the ‘mistaken hearing’ of this homolinguistic process would produce text in a fairly arbitrary way. Reading the exchange a few months later, it was clear to us that our psychological preoccupations had determined our hearing; obvious in our ‘nonsense’ text were intimations of my imminent coming out, Nicole’s grief over her father’s death, my consolations.” (Prismatic Publics 46)

Indeed, some of the lines sparked by these personal concerns—“But do you see through the Y I gay?”; “Long: it has to be long”—are among the most affecting in a sequence where entertainment is the primary effect.

Collaborative variations on translation are smokin’ these days, with Erin Moure and Oana Avasilichioaei’s Expeditions of a Chimaera and poet and critic team Emily Carr and Erin Wunker’s interlinked Sonnets project. Who else wants to try some?

Works Cited

Eichhorn, Kate, and Heather Milne, Eds. Prismatic Publics: Innovative Canadian Women’s Poetry and Poetics. Toronto: Coach House, 2009.

Holbrook, Susan. Joy Is So Exhausting. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2009.

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Melanie Bell is a former managing editor of Matrix magazine, graduate of the University of New Brunswick’s Renaissance College program, and almost-graduate of Concordia’s Creative Writing MA program. Her poetry has appeared in Grain, The Fiddlehead, CV2, and various other publications. She and her book collection live here and there, currently in Montreal.

“If I Was René Daumal I Would Have Mastered Self-Love by Now”: Guillaume Morissette on René Daumal.

One Word Is Sufficient (from Le Contre-Ciel)

Name if you can your shadow, your fear,
and measure the circumference of its head,
the circumference of your world, and if you can
pronounce it, the catastrophic word,
if you dare break this silence
weaved with mute laughter, if you dare break the
bubble by yourself
and tear up the plot,
all alone, all alone, and fix your eyes on it
and come blind toward the night,
come toward your death who does not see you,
alone if you dare shatter the night
paved with dying eyes,
by yourself if you dare
to come bare and alone toward the mother of the dead

in the heart of her heart your eyes rest

listen to her call you: my child,
listen to her call you by your name.

I like to google obscure poets a lot. When I type ‘poem’ in my google search bar, my browser remembers past queries and list things like ‘composure poem’, ‘mistake poem’ or ‘empathy poem.’ I owe maybe eighty percent of my favorite poets to a combination of arbitrariness, luck, someone’s search algorithm, brainyquote.com, goodreads.com and people’s wishlists at amazon.ca.

I learned of René Daumal through the wikipedia entry for Holy Mountain, a surreal/overly random/allegorical cult movie from 1973. The wikipedia entry credits Daumal’s captivating and vaguely odd novel Mount Analogue: A Novel Of Symbolically Authentic Non-Euclidean Adventures In Mountain Climbing) as an important source of inspiration. I read Mount Analogue’s wikipedia entry then read people’s comments at amazon.ca and then ordered it and waited and received it and read it and liked it a lot.

Daumal was a French poet/writer known for his work on spirituality and perception. He spent his youth as part of a collective called ‘The Simplists’ and used drugs to experience the surreal or to expand his understanding of the para-psychological. In North America, he is best known for two novels, A Night Of Serious Drinking as well as the previously mentioned Mount Analogue, in which he argues that transcendental knowledge is attained through an understanding of reality and communion with others. Daumal died of tuberculosis in 1944.

As a poet, Daumal earned the Jacques Doucet prize in 1936 for his debut poetry collection, Le Contre-Ciel (‘The Counter-Heaven’). Spiritual concerns and altered states of consciousness seem to form the ‘fabric’ of Le Contre-Ciel, which also offers reflections on death as a beginning to life rather than an end, ways to expand one’s global understanding and awareness and the bleakness of the superficial.

Le Contre-Ciel opens with ‘Keys To A Poetic Game,’ a thirty-two part series that mixes rapid-fire poetry with analytical commentary. The book is divided in multiple sections and sometimes strays away from poetry only to return to the form later on.

Daumal’s verses, for the most part, aren’t difficult to digest at all. The poetry isn’t tortuous or convoluted or pretentious but instead straightforward and elegant and clear. Poems in Le Contre-Ciel can have a strange metaphysical effect over the reader.

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Guillaume Morissette writes poetry and fiction and emails. He is a creative writing major at Concordia, which is probably the closest you can get to majoring in sadness. His work has appeared in Lickety Split, Synapse, Papirmasse, Headlight and other places, also. Some of his work can be read online at http://floatinghumanface.tumblr.com/. He lives in montreal.

Michael Chaulk on First Books

Sarah Dowling’s security posture

I first read Sarah Dowling’s security posture on a half-empty airplane. There was a long delay, I think forty-five minutes. On one side of me, the window leading out to lengths of tarmac and a longer purple 6am sunrise. On the other, a man in a grey suit watching what had to have been a History Channel documentary about Things On Fire. This is relevant.

security posture, the winner of the 2009 Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry and so published by snare books, is coherent as a first book because it leaves you with an impression. It might be an indistinct impression, but it’s nonetheless full and it all works toward building it.

This is the way that Dowling formats security posture as well. If they are separate poems, even, they are untitled. Some parts seem to be governed by erasure, and others by grounded things like hair and lamps, but the subject is almost always obscured. There are no sections or headings or epigraphs. It is all one progression, and it has a pulse.

There are several pages of poetry in the middle which seem to be anchored by the letter f used as itself. These poems are then written in their reversed forms, but because the language itself is so peculiar and dense, it’s hard to notice at first. There appears to be some sort of system, but what? Nouns becomes verbs or something else entirely and indefinable. It’s pleasing and unfamiliar, and feels more like rolling than reversal.

Here’s an example of one of what I call the “f poems” on page 38:

sky, the against
is spread out evening when
I turn over
there I turn
myself, like
stones.

soft white walls
you are my
assurance
f
you, everyday
turn, pass her delicate may I

pool I leave it
turn you’re what
like stones f
the against like
f

And then, on page 39, this poem is reversed. Read/write it out yourself: “f/ like against the. . .”

So that’s also what can cohere a book: an overall something that cannot be defined (by me), really, but effects you in an itself-nameless way. It reminds you of your relationship with your seat and its thistled fabric, resumes the plane’s hums (the thick ones and the thin ones both) in your purview, and makes you (feeling peculiarly more water-based than ever) want the man to look over just once, which he doesn’t. You look out at the purples and the tarmac and go “Huh, okay,” as if, for a moment, you might have understood it all, even if you would never have been able to articulate it.

Dowling, Sarah. security posture. Montreal: Snare Books. 2009. Print.

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Michael Chaulk is a licensed Canadian seaman, but also a writer living in Montreal above heavy street traffic. He is the Editor-in-Chief of The Void Magazine at Concordia University and the Associate Poetry Editor for the Incongruous Quarterly on the internet. He has work forthcoming in the spring issue of PRISM international.

Robert Fitterman Introduces Sophia Le Fraga, Feminlist

Feminlist

womenthol cigarettes
womanchego cheese
womanila envelopes
womandala
womandolin
womannequin
womanicure
womansion
Charles Womanson
Marilyn Womanson
Womandy Moore
Paul Newoman
Newoman’s Own
sediwomentary rock
womanatee
womanta ray
praying womantis
salawomander
womandarin
womango
womantle
diswomantle
Gerwoman
Womanhattan
womanic depression
womental disorder
womaniac
Prewomenstrual Syndrome
hywomen
womanslaughter
womention
cewoment
cowomment
cowommendable
repriwomandible
monuwomental
ornawomental
womanager
womentor
elewoment
womandible
rowomance
browomance

-Sophia Le Fraga

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I am very excited and pleased to introduce the poet Sophia Le Fraga. Her text included here, Feminlist, is a startling poem where each item in a list is embodied with the word woman. This bold insertion complicates and contributes to new ways to think about feminism in conceptual poetry. Le Fraga’s womanlist marks a subtle and convincing insight into the expansion and contraction of language and gender. The list is not meant to be complete, but instead is carefully orchestrated with humor, (womanchego cheese), with commodity (Paul Newoman), and with larger issues of womanhood (womanic depression). In other words, this piece rocks!

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Robert Fitterman is the author of 10 books of poetry including: The Sun Also Also Rises, war the musical, Metropolis XXX: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Edge Books), Metropolis 16-29 (Coach House Press), Metropolis 1-15 (Sun & Moon Press), This Window Makes Me Feel (www.ubu.com). Metropolis 1-15 was awarded the Sun & Moon “New American Poetry Award (2000)” and Metropolis 16-29 was awarded the Small Press Traffic “Book of the Year Award (2003)”. With novelist Rodrigo Rey Rosa, he co-authored the film What Sebastian Dreamt which was selected for the Sundance Film Festival (2004) and the Lincoln Center LatinBeat Festival (2004). He has been a full-time faculty member in NYU’s Liberal Studies Program since 1993. He also teaches poetry at the Milton Avery School of Graduate Studies at Bard College.

Emily Pinkerton’s Warholian Dystopia

Writing is changing. In the past few years, the mainstream practice has changed significantly. I’ve been a champion for the way the Internet is changing writing for quite some time, and I’ll continue to be, but when I think of the Internet’s impact on culture and how that influences young writers, I get fearful. Great, wrenching fears crash in my ribcage, as I observe that for young writers, the Internet has become a place where your writerly ambition matters far less than your knack for self-promotion. I worry that the Tao Lins and the Megan Boyles and the Bebe Zevas and the Ellen Kennedys of the world will eat my lunch and end up being studied by future generations. This sounds laughable, but I honestly can’t think of any other writers my age getting as much media attention.

Is this the new way to make your name? Write half-coherently at all times, paste your gchats into your manuscript or on your blog, vaguely anesthetize everything and obsess over your blog’s Google Analytics? That seems to be the game young writers are playing. That’s not a game I want to play, but where does it leave me as a writer? As a writer, am I a luddite? There is great irony here: I’ve been working in tech since 2004; I am the anti-luddite. Yet I can’t help but wonder: does the success of the relentlessly self-promoting Thought Catalog-ers foreshadow our future? Does it matter what you do, what you create? Does it matter that I spend time trying to craft writing I believe is beautiful: poetry with meter and rhythm as well as a clear narrative? Prose with proper grammar and a sense of plot? Or does it not matter at all because in the same time it will take me to craft a single manuscript, Tao Lin will write three while on various drugs. And people will buy more of them because he willretweet every Tweet, cross-post his work and any reviews he can get (positive or negative) to Facebook – tracking clicks on every link and optimizing his websites to bring in more traffic and thus more customers. Is this the new publishing industry?

From where I’m sitting, what seems to make or break these artists is how much they’re willing to promote what they do, and what extremes they’re willing to go to for self promotion. There was a time when Megan Boyle’s recounting of every sexual encounter she’s ever had would have been ignored at face value: as the writings of someone with the emotional maturity of a teenager begging for attention. Now begging for attention is not only ‘cool’ and ‘worthy of literary merit,’ it becomes a self-pereptuating attention machine, which means your everyday minutiae become endlessly publishable content. Simply say “it’s tongue-in-cheek,” and all your juvenile blog fodder becomes paycheck-worthy and gets you published. Or at least it’s passed as reputable enough for Thought Catalog, which is just 10,000 Twitter followers shy of The Atlantic. These numbers are not insignificant. The Atlantic may publish better writing; but if I had to put money on who will get more eyes on their work in the next five years, it’s Thought Catalog, and the numbers themselves will give Thought Catalog’s particular style of writing more credibility (so get ready for more Muumuu House-type publishers to spring up). If you’re in the 25-35 age range and trying to get work published: your anxiety is justified. As much as Lin & co. poke fun at ‘staying relevant’ they’re onto something: achieving cultural relevance at this moment in history is an absolute joke. The only talent it requires is ability to draw attention to yourself via any means possible. Call it the Paris Hilton effect. Celebrity was once something gained by virtue of excelling at some kind of craft that was in the public eye. Now celebrity exists for its own sake – you can gain an audience anywhere (most easily, of course, on the Internet) and grow it by doing more of whatever you’re doing, or doing it in a more extreme way. When you get married in Vegas for the sake of getting married in Vegas but then write about it how do you classify it? Is it A) the same PR stunt a thousand half-rate celebrities have pulled to get themselves more attention or B) a commentary on the alienation of modern writers?

Writing as influenced by Internet culture seems like a bastardization of postmodernist theory, mixed with too much advertising taken to heart, the sum then taken to the only natural conclusion: author as impartial exhibitionist, whose antics, when transposed into words and consumed by an audience, become imbued with a meaning that is whatever it needs to be – usually whatever is most commercially marketable at the moment – and instead of having a critic call bullshit, the work receives an equal number of comments in jest and in earnest, saying “that’s deep.”

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Emily Pinkerton was an exceptional student in my Poetry workshop at Haverford College in 2007. She was already writing and thinking about digital media and poetry at an advanced level. Since then she has moved to San Francisco where she works for Twitter by day and writes by night. She is starting an online journal called Analogous Magazine. (bio via Lemon Hound)

Julie Sheehan Introduces Michelle Whitaker, the Floater

The Floater
I have yet to learn how to hurricane the trees like him,

bend their necks down until the snap
into a migration hidden in all the wrong, wrong spaces.
I watched the boats unstrapped, one by none left on the back waters
like an unbeliever from a billy-goat stare
between his hand and the wild fever away. I saw him do it.
Some nights I try to hide the writhe,
even when striding fingers over ears, I can still hear him,
as a river does trying to keep a royal tone over rocks
but I can’t stop un-strapping the back waters in replay
while minding the owl who pushes through these rural parts
I’m learning to mind that cockerel head, I’m learning who twisted this man thin
as a kite strung high up up up the wrong, wrong bark.


-Michelle Whittaker

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Michelle Whittaker’s imagination is a force to be reckoned with, much as this poem reckons with the force of a hurricane. “The Floater” moves through its watery images to teach us that the subject, that unnamed “he,” floats on air—a lynched body, or a suicide—a victim of our “wrong, wrong spaces” but also a force of his own, haunting the speaker who “saw him do it” and tries unsuccessfully to “hide the writhe.” What I love about “The Floater,” like so many of Whittaker’s poems, is how it engages simultaneously with the image—in this case, quite a potentially overwhelming one—and with engagement itself. The poem’s in the first person, though it could easily be in the third. A lesser poet would perhaps have begun with a line like, “He hurricanes the trees.” Not Whittaker, who immediately puts the image into a relationship with a speaker, a witness, and thus introduces her great subject, justice.

Why would this speaker want to “learn how to hurricane the trees”? Why can’t the speaker “stop un-strapping the back waters in replay”? The move from a future state of knowledge in the first line’s “yet to learn” to a present, continuing state at the end (“I’m learning…I’m learning”) suggests that engagement with the other, no matter how shocking or foul, through contemplation is the first step toward forming the kind of humane judgments that can account for suffering and the capacity to inflict suffering. Do we doubt this poet’s capacity to contemplate suffering, to “mind that cockerel head”? Not for a minute. Armed with an inventive syntax where parts of speech slide into each other, a musician’s ear for the sound words make, and a taste for justice, Whittaker meets the extraordinary violence and outrage of our man-made landscape with violent beauty, much “as a river does trying to keep a royal tone over rocks.”

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Julie Sheehan’s three poetry collections are Bar Book: Poems & Otherwise, Orient Point and Thaw. Her honors include a Whiting Writers’ Award, NYFA Fellowship and the Barnard Women Poets Prize. She teaches in the MFA program at Stony Brook Southampton.

Michelle Whittaker is a pianist, teacher, and Liberal Arts Chair for Patchogue Arts Council. Her poems have recently appeared and are forthcoming in The Southampton Review, Drunken Boat, Xanadu and Long Island Quarterly. She received the 2009 Jody Donohue Poetry Prize and a Pushcart Prize special mention. Currently, she is finishing her MFA at Stony Brook University.

Jacob McArthur Mooney Introduces Mathew Henderson, the Tank

The Tank

Squats three days at a time in white brown mud
that sticks and sucks like a mouth against
everything it touches. The long battle,
the bit by bit of urging steel to the centre
of the earth. Dreams of sinking
past the slow riot of oil, sand, and stone,
to the bottom of the prairie shield.

Rig out. The pylons packed, extinguishers
strapped, the guy wires of the stack plucked
to swing loose again against the sky. Everything ends,
briefly, and the iron world moves on.

Only the tire ruts are left, six inches
deep, wet with water and an oil sheen,
and even those are eaten over by wheat
and flax and mustard seeds.

No mark survives this place: you too will yield
to unmemory. Give everything you are
in three-day pieces. Watch the gypsy-iron
move, follow its commands,
tend the rusted steel like a shepherd.

The Hound has asked me to introduce two poems written by an associate of mine, a Mr. Mathew Henderson, originally of Prince Edward Island. These two poems are from a sequence called “Oilfield Poems” that made it to the shortlist for the most recent round of CBC Literary Awards. I’m a fan of Matt’s work, so this is a privilege.As mentioned, Henderson is a Prince Edward Islander, and this suite of poems inspired by his time spent working the oil patches of Alberta would appear to come right out of his province’s richest poetic vein: the so-called “work” poetry of Milton Acorn, through to Richard Lemm, all the way forward to the more contemporary examples like David Hickey’s debut book, In the Lights of a Midnight Plow. This is fair for a piece of genealogy, though it’s a little too closely informed by geography to be trusted as a helpful introduction. Surely, much of what Matt has written so far has been framed by a fascination with the physicality of work, specifically the close-up sensuality of manual labour. There are traces here of early John Steffler, and maybe Alden Nowlan. I understand these are all male poets, and I would never put Henderson’s work on a gender uniformity kick, but working from what we’ve come to call “work poetry”, we often end up, accidentally, in the sub-division known as “work poetry, written by men.” The source of this mistake is largely cultural, as the physicality of work, when presented by a female poet, tends to be given different names reflecting that work’s different economic valuation: the domestic poem, the mothering poem, etc. There are female poets writing bout paid manual labour, of course. But they are outnumbered by people like Sharon Olds, she being very much a work poet, though one of the unpaid economy. Olds employs all the same mechanics and tropes and tricks of a, say, Tom Wayman.The role of metaphor in the poem above is to suggest a paranoid danger, Henderson’s polyphonic machines are always threatening to come apart into their component pieces, to shudder into something unpredictable (that “mouth” in the first stanza, or the personification of oil as something that “riots). Unlike, say, Steffler’s benevolent pipes, Henderson’s drills are not to be trusted, they are always just a short paradigm shift away from monsterhood.

Oilfield Love Poem

Town is his wife. His daughter: Elizabeth.
Out here is just pussy: shower, shave,
condoms, call home, goodnight I love you.

You hear big hands on the door,
the sway of the housekeeping sign.
Listen with closed eyes to the quiet
liquored fucking one bed over.

You hear the wake up call, an engine
choked from sleep, the whistle of the gas
and the nightshift pulling up. His phone—
goodnight, I love you, and you love her too,
like she’s the last woman not in the patch.

I’d like to suggest another tradition for the reading of Matt’s work. If you take the prosody of the work poem, add in the element of travel, the loneliness, and the stiff and faceless camaraderie of young men, you end up in the neighbouring tradition of war poetry. It’s not hard to hear Yusef Komunyakaa’s Vietnam experience licking at the edges of Henderson’s oilfield lyrics. The fear of the machine, the paranoia, the loneliness, the hollow machismo of youth, these and more are shared ingredients. Henderson’s self-discovery via drill bit is similar in its sensuality and bluntness to Wilfred Owen’s morbid fascination with his rifle.There’s a politics, there, somewhere. And if it’s not there on the page, then here’s me giving it to you: war is a consistent cultural escape valve for our many narratives about lower- or middle-class youth from the fringes of the nation hoping to make good. Speaking as someone who has seen the entire rest of his residence floor from his freshman year of university (Memorial, Class of 2006. Go Seahawks) since move west for work in the oilfields, I suggest that the dreams of the quick dollar, the identity offered by legion, and the independence that drives the erstwhile young man of Galveston to the Marines drives that same man to the patches if he happened to grow up, as Matt Henderson did, in Charlottetown. The rumble and confusion that follows each of these adventurers shares a core vocabulary.Hendo is presently extending his suite of Oilfield Poems into his thesis at the University of Guelph’s MFA program in Toronto. It should be fun to watch them grow and expand.

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Jacob McArthur Mooney lives in Toronto. His books are “The New Layman’s Almanac” (McClelland & Stewart, 2008) and “Folk” (M&S, 2011). He maintains the poetry blog called Vox Populism.

Mathew Henderson grew up in P.E.I. and now lives in Toronto where he spends his time writing poems about the prairies. He is currently completing his MFA in creative writing at the University of Guelph, and was shortlisted for the 2011 CBC Literary Award in Poetry (English Language).