Sunday, May 27, 2018

Ewa Chrusciel, Of Annunciations

Left-To-Die Boat

The helicopter hovered above our boat, dropped eight bottles of water, biscuits, cubes of sugar and left. The fishermen dried out their nets, almost capsizing our vessel. And left. The coastguard left. We drank water and urine. Where were our Guardian Angels? The oceanographers saw us. Trapped in waves, we yearn to exist. The water, left to witness. Let sorrowful longing dwell in our sugar-cube spit, lost in the waves. Shall we arrive as grebes or pelicans?

Bilingual New Hampshire poet and translator Ewa Chrusciel’s third full-length poetry title in English—after Strata (Emergency Press, 2011) and Contraband of Hoopoe (Omnidawn, 2014) [see my review of such here]—is Of Annunciations (Oakland CA: Omnidawn, 2018), a book exploring the idea and details of the migrant, from the Biblical to the contemporary, as she writes to open the poem “Guardian Angel of Exodus”:

Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.

This is an incredibly powerful collection of poems that strike with such beauty. Moving through poems both lyric and documentary, Chrusciel writes of those displaced by war, including those across Europe, connecting stories in the news to those scattered across history, and connecting a variety of displacements across multiple borders, traumas and losses. Hers are poems that respond to the fear of the “other,” articulating how such fears misunderstand how fragile such distinctions really are, and how so many stories can be connected, from the settler to the migrant to those exiles experiencing exodus from Biblical Egypt. In the poem “Exilium,” for example, she lays bare those connections through a sequence of contemporary migrants fleeing war, each with but what they could carry, itself a gathering of unbearable loss:

I took fear with me. When it strikes, I take my children and run. When we ran the first time, we took a plastic bag with documents and photographs. My daughter took her Tweety Bird. She keeps her eye on it and in the evening she puts all the candies she has inside it. My name is Muhammad. I am 38.

I took photos of my family and friends when I left our house in Tel Kelekh during the gunfire. Bullets perforated the walls. After crossing the border with Lebanon, I saw on YouTube that our house was demolished. My name is Joanna. I am 22.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Josh Fomon

Originally from Iowa City, Josh Fomon is a political operative in Seattle. His book, Though we bled meticulously was published by Black Ocean in 2016.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I can’t say for certain how having a book has changed my life. I probably have less anxiety about writing and publishing—I feel like I can permit myself to have a more measured approach and relationship with my writing. Maybe that’s just growing older though.

There is an incalculable feeling of someone even telling me they read my book—it’s even better than when Carrie Olivia Adams and Janaka Stucky initially accepted my manuscript with Black Ocean, which had been a seemingly impossible dream.

My recent work has my same obsessions—death, longing, and articulating the physical and metaphysical, and where the two intersect—but I think the work is more overt in finding precision in moments of unknowing the everyday, the treachery of nostalgia, the tangible effects we have on the world—overtly apocalyptic and finding the language held within the detritus. And existential dread always, because we have so much capacity for hope and despair.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I never had the patience or attention for plot or narrative when I was younger—I was an addled youth. That’s changed now, thankfully, but poetry’s music and abstraction drew me in and never let go.

The musicality of language became a preternatural obsession, which I don’t think I’ll ever be able to escape no matter the genre. Poetry feels like a natural way to think.

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?
With Though we bled meticulously (TWBM), the poems grew out of necessity after having abandoned a full manuscript that became tedious—and a rupture in my personal life. As silly as this sounds, it felt as though the book intuited itself through me—I think the core poems and shape of the book were written in about six months. Many of the early drafts for TWBM are similar to how they appear in the book.

Once a project shows me its trajectory, the thinking and poems tend to obsess and preoccupy me—and I need to constantly find a way out to keep from stagnating the energy, yet maintain the necessity of the work. I write in spurts—sometimes prolifically over days, then nothing at all for months. My process is always a work-in-progress until it isn’t—the absence of writing is itself a kind of obligatory percolation.

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?
For me, writing is an incantatory process that slowly unravels and reveals itself to me, especially through the music of the line—more than anything, I feel like a conduit through which an idea sings. In this sense, I think I write most often when I have the capacity to sustain thoughts and can read—my writing begins with an urgency to react and reanimate dead things.

I’m a project writer, though the project is never something I set out to write—I find it when it wants to announce itself and captivates me in its thinking. Poems often begin as longer, sprawling pieces that share similar obsessions that finally relent into something fully formed.

Lately, I’ve been trying to approach writing in a way that feels foreign—I’m more interested in how poems betray so much within themselves and to the reader, which feels more divinatory and uncharted.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love readings and the opportunity for writers to articulate how they envision the work aurally. It’s such a great way to dig into the music of the poem and connect with readers. Readings are such a vital part of poetry and the writing community—as many as there seem to already be, we always need more reading series, and people dedicated to creating community, because what is poetry if not community.

I think there is sometimes a huge resistance toward performing a poem—but it’s one of the few ways readers get to hear the poem as the writer intended. In my writing, I feel out what the music and poem demands—performing gives me the opportunity to take this off the page and delight in the sonic shape of the lyric. Sound matters because it taps into the vitality of the work—a life force—poetry is the vocals and the backing band. I think we need to put more care into sculpting our performances—poets should be more interested in professional wrestling, standup comedy, drag, and glam rock.

There is graciousness in the act of reading out loud that both the reader and audience need—as poets, we’re facing existential crisis, when "the number of Americans who had read at least one poem in the past year had declined by 45 percent between 2002 and 2012, down to 6.7 percent of the population." We need more readers and readings are an easy entry point to grow readership.

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 like poetry that ideates on the page—language has the capacity to explore and engage with an inexhaustible amount of knowing and unknowing. I’m drawn to poetry that explores existential and metaphysical spaces—poetry that thinks toward questions, and lingers.

I’m obsessed with writers like Edmond Jabès (trans. Rosmarie Waldrop), Jaime Saenz, Mina Loy, and Will Alexander who utilize language as means to contemplate greater existential inquiries. They are incredibly complex thinkers, but they also conjure a process of destabilizing experience within their work and use language as means to an end for their philosophical concerns—they capture the experience of thinking.

I like yelling toward a void and seeing if anything echoes back. I think that is itself a question.

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?
Writers have the ability to articulate the changing world—they are keen observers. I’ve been working in politics for the past few years and have begun to see the importance in art’s ability to outlast—writing and art typically are separate than a news cycle and ask questions that defamiliarize context and outlast. I suppose there is a kind of brutal truth to this. Writing has the opportunity to exist outside of time as an artifact of a particular moment—and it has the means to articulate the complexity of it.

I think art, at large, is a reactionary interpretation of the difficulty our society faces—I think our world is reshaping itself wholly right now, which is great and long overdue, but we have centuries of inequalities and racism to deal with. We need writers for this.

As for the role of the writer? We write because we must, and assuredly, this is a reaction to the culture we live in. I don’t think this is particularly profound. Art is created from a void of our own making—our need to say something and be heard. We should be better about lifting up voices unlike our own.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Working with outside editors has been a way to recognize my worst impulses, and learn how to excise them. Outside perspective untangles the internal logic of the writing, and recognizing and identifying this is an essential means of learning how to edit. Before TWBM was accepted at Black Ocean, a few incredible friends and mentors began the process of exorcising the book’s excesses in early drafts, and they were able to parse out the restraint it needed.

Working with Carrie Olivia Adams was great--I think by the time my final draft got to her there were few major edits, but she also interrogated the writing where it needed to be interrogated and the book was better off for it.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
To paraphrase, Jane Gregory once told me a writer needs to believe in their work or else no one will care. I think that really extends to everything in life, but having a certain confidence or swagger about knowing you don’t know anything is truly life changing when you face an empty page—you begin with intent.

Just as important, Joanna Klink taught me an invaluable lesson—always write beyond the natural, intuitive ending into the uncomfortable, unsettling feeling of finding out what the work actually has to say.

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?
Lately, I’ve been an infrequent writer and haven’t held a solid routine. I write when I can and am grateful for whenever I can find a block of time where I can sustain my focus on writing. I’ve also been scheduling writing dates to be liable for producing new work. Solidarity is a hell of a motivator.

I write best in the middle of the day to the late afternoon—coffee and beer, and Broken Water allow me to enter an embodied trance where the destabilizing magic begins.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I’m a firm believer of letting writing stall out and having many projects going at once until something captivates me. The work lives on—and allows me to refine everything later. Thinking is an important part of my process—allowing myself to hate something and realize why it isn’t working may be more important to me now than anything else.

Oftentimes, I stall out because I simply don’t have the time to write, or the anxieties of life demand more than I can give to writing—I think this is fine, though. Given my line of work over the past few years, I’ve had to often put my writing on pause as a political campaign envelopes me—it’s hard to write when you don’t have a day off for months in a row and you’re working 60-70 hour weeks. It’s kind of tragically charming how binary and siloed off the two worlds are—they can’t coexist no matter how hard I’ve tried.  

Parquet Courts have a great line in respect to this: “It never leaves me,/just visits less often”.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I grew up in Iowa City, and the earth creates thresholds of life. For me, the petrichor and fecundity of spring is home. The deep rawness of thawing black earth overtakes you there—even in the city. I currently live in Seattle, which washes away its scent too readily and too often—its smell is distinct yet thoroughly elusive.

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?
Film, visual art, sound art, and science all inform my writing—physics is profoundly wild. I lived in D.C. for a short time and spent all the time I could in museums, during which the exhibit Damage Control: Art and Destruction since 1950 at the Hirschhorn became a master class in how to create and destroy—Ori Gersht’s “Big Bang” taught me how to revise my book.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Prageeta Sharma, Elizabeth Robinson, Jane Gregory, and Peter Richards have given me incalculable support and guidance. Black Ocean has been a foundation for me, and I admire Carrie and Janaka for their dedication and I’m so grateful to have a book with them. In Seattle, I’m looking forward to new books and projects from Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, Richard Chiem, Jane Wong, Bill Carty, Quenton Baker, and Don Mee Choi—to name just a few of the phenomenally talented writers in this city, which has a genuine abundance of amazing writers. Willie Fitzgerald’s Twitter is the national treasure America deserves. Seattle might have the best writing community I’ve ever encountered.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I would love to write and direct a film.

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?
I wish writing could be an occupation for me—I currently work in politics when I can, which is its own crazy, bizarre, and insular world. I wish I would have gotten into filmmaking or woodworking—I love working with my hands—though, I suppose, there is always still time to do that.

EDIT: Hilariously, since starting this interview, I started a new job writing remotely for a political communications firm in D.C.—I love every moment I’m writing so far, but will have a better read come January. To say 2018 is going to be an interesting year in politics might be the understatement of the year.

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I’ve been in a pretty constant tug-of-war between my two lives—politics is wholly consuming, and writing and art is always fighting for more of my attention. Writing, more than anything, is something that can be done anywhere, at any time, with little capital investment—the musicality and physical experience of writing just can’t be replicated.

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

19 - What are you currently working on?
I’ve been working on prose lately—a handful of short stories in progress and a novella that may never happen, but a new poetry project just took hold, which is exciting, grotesque, and existentially curious. It feels all very connected.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Jake Syersak, Yield Architecture

“Architecture as establishing moving relationships with raw materials” streams from Corbusier’s jaw as if it were its own internal dwelling, a thing, as in: the marriage of the & ing. Something kingly as coming to the agreement an airplane’s in flight, though it’s a flighty background sews the eye through the usefulness of jets’ eyelets. What forwards this I through this—through any—environment is recognizing the design the raw moves on moves on. So I’m looking over the cast of lines: of life, motion, & the narrative kind—all the outliers we work in to affront. Will that affluent taste of fluency, squeegeed across a window tongue, Niagra into any fountained clarity? What physical insight this might justify, I’m unsure. Wolves swill into these fingerprints as easily as conversation eats them. But if crowning the integrity of building’s all we can amount to, best to follow those fault lines religiously. (“Skins, Skeins, History, Hysteria & Dust”)

Officially released this past March, on my forty-eighth birthday, no less (thanks, Jake!) is Athens, Georgia poet, editor and publisher Jake Syersak’s first full-length poetry title, Yield Architecture (Portland OR: Burnside Review Press, 2018), a book that follows a small handful of chapbooks produced by presses such as above/ground press and Shirt Pocket Press. Set in four self-contained sections—“Skins, Skeins, History, Hysteria & Dust,” “Soldered Opposite of Weather Was Yourself,” “Fractal Noises from the Foliage” and “Impressions in the Language of a Lantern’s Wick” (which appeared previously as a chapbook with Ghost Proposal in 2016)—Syersak’s Yield Architecture does give the sense of both a critical essay, and a poetry composed of fault lines, assembled in such a way as to tremble, pull apart and rattle against each other when required. Composed as an assemblage and sequence of direct statements, notes, sketched-out lines, lyrics, prose poems and pulled-apart sentence structures, the poems both challenge and give way, effecting a yield, even, against itself, and its own structure. If, as the late Canadian lyric poet John Newlove wrote in The Night the Dog Smiled (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 1986), “the arrangement is all,” then Syersak’s poems are obsessed with their own construction, and even, in effect, rebel against themselves, arguing for their own dismantlement, even as they accumulate and build, writing:

fortitude’s resistance requires
            a moment’s tranquility revolve
                                          in a piece—of asphalt,
feather, or flight

point-by-point petrification of

                          a dove’s symbology of
                                         refusal, exacting

of air
the lung-lids (“Impressions in the Language of a Lantern’s Wick”)

Inan interview conducted by James Eidson for Ghost Proposal, posted online on April 16, 2017, Syersak wrote:

At this point I’m pretty hostile toward anything that refers to poetic language as a “game.” I don’t mean to take myself too seriously (because I did, in fact, have a lot of fun writing this book), but I think there’s always more at stake. I blame the LANGUAGE poets for creating the mentality that poetry is somehow nothing more than a “game” to be played. There are too many life / death ramifications evident in language pervading our culture to think like that. Looking back, I actually think now that this book (what’s now the last section to a larger collection called Yield Architecture) was my attempt to purge the influence of LANGUAGE poetry from my own poetics. My poems will always be haunted by their influence, but I hope it endures as some centrifuge of sabotage, maybe through the formless material you cite that manifests through sensation. Anyways, you’re right: at the heart of this book is an obsession with paradox—the palpable vs. the impalpable, the ethereal vs. the concrete, etc. I’m obsessed with poets who share that obsessive deconstruction of paradox but want to lug it into the real world, charge it politically, and break it into digestible pieces. Juliana Spahr, j/j hastain, Hoa Nguyen, Will Alexander, and Fred Moten are all poets that were really present with me while writing it. Most everything released by Action Books, Ahsahta, or Commune Editions endures with me.