November 27, 2013

Sadiqa de Meijer: YES

Sadiqa de Meijer

I said. The wind
lifted the word and blew it
through the birches into smaller yeses
that dispersed.

Hitched bicycle ride, my hands
on your waist, soles skimming the road
in the bends.

What we wore will be one of those tellings
that even a latent, erasing disease
never steals. In tune like a robin and robin, a doorbell
and creak of the stairs.

Say love is the ship coming in.
Say the grave eyes of the birch trees
watched us go. How long

had we stood on the pier? Gulls squalled.
We’d outgrown what we packed.

Read my interview with Sadiqa de Meijer here

In Conversation with Sadiqa de Meijer

Sadiqa de Meijer's having a busy year. She took a break to talk with me about goosebumps and awe as the sky got darker, earlier.

SUSAN GILLIS: How did you come to poetry in the first place?

SADIQA DE MEIJER: It’s been with me from the near-beginning – in children’s books, and also in the occasional verses that my grandfather wrote for birthdays and other celebrations. He encouraged me to contribute: it didn’t have the feeling of an art so much as a game, like chess or something – you had to try for consistent meter, clever rhymes, puns. It gave me a start in exercising those kinds of skills.

Poems really got to me – they seemed to hold such concentrated power. When they were read out loud in high school, I always had a weird suspicion that they affected me far beyond what was typical – goosebumps and awe. Writing-wise, there was the predictable next stage: poems of adolescent melodrama. And when that resolved, I continued writing, and reading. It’s probably the latter thing that fuels the writing – seeing the range that poetry encompasses, the differences in approach between poets. And figuring out how their writing works.

SG: Many of your poems take the reader on journeys of surprise, in that almost every line turns a slightly new or unexpected corner. How deliberate is this as a strategy, and more generally, how do you think about ‘the line’ in poetry?

SdM: How deliberate is that effect of surprise ? – I would say, somewhat. I mean, I do consider the obvious when I’m writing or revising: that I don’t want to use predictable images or phrases. I think they have a numbing effect. But I also agree with this excerpt from a poem by Alice Fulton, from the back of last month’s Poetry Magazine:

                  It will be new

  whether you make it new
  or not

What that suggests to me is, if you give a subject (whether inward or outwardly located) your attention, and then try to report what you’ve observed, the result will probably not duplicate what exists. It may be close, it may be in tune with other work, but it will also be distinct--because that's inherent in the encounter between one consciousness and the world. I feel like that effort – the attention and the recording – takes lifelong practice. I’m only at the edge of it. But I do think it differs from the approach (that I also employ, but less cheerfully) of going back and crossing out clichés and wondering what to replace them with – i.e. making it new.

When I look at the poems in Leaving Howe Island, I think I’ve used the line as a unit of various things: breath, thought, speech. And sometimes with the image of the poem on the page in mind.

My other thought, at this question, is whether some of the surprise has to do with culture. I’m of mixed race and cultural background, and an immigrant – those elements are embedded in my perspective, and inevitably determine some of what my speakers take for granted. It depends on the reader: some may experience surprise when the text diverges from what they are culturally inclined to assume.

And my last take on this, is that having a first language other than English could be a factor. I’ve been comfortable in English for a long time – but it wasn’t the language of my nursery rhymes and earliest conversations. I wouldn’t be surprised if that affects my syntax and diction to some degree.

SG: What have you read lately that has excited you?

SdM: Jason Heroux’s poetry is amazing: his latest work is the chapbook In Defence of the Attacked Center Pawn. Such levity and darkness in the small space of the poems. I’ve been reading Sara Peters’ 1996 with admiration – the poems are so lucid and startling and well-crafted.  And I guess I re-read a lot: Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind, which I love, and Annie Dillard’s essay, The Death of the Moth.

Sadiqa de Meijer was born in Amsterdam and moved to Canada as a child. Her poetry, short stories and essays have been published in a range of journals and anthologies, including The Malahat Review, Geist, Riddle Fence and Poetry Magazine. Her first book of poems is Leaving Howe Island (Oolichan Books). A selection from the manuscript won the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. Read her poem Yes, here.

November 20, 2013

In Conversation with Phil Hall

 Phil Hall. Portrait by geffo
I would love to be a fly on Phil Hall's desk. A fly with ears.  I think Phil's desk is a swatter-free zone. A deeply generous zone. Here he is, on raw decorum and other songs. 

SUSAN GILLIS: What brought you to poetry in the first place?

PHIL HALL: I was desperate for order. Shelter. I built hidden forts everywhere. I needed—and still do—a musical place to keep my only and tiny authority. 

A musical need—the jarring, discordant, random ugliness of childhood would not let up.

Only—powerlessness can be underwear the dead wore first. But—only screwed-up me made this / using the little I know.

Tiny—inside the making of poems, the authority I find has to be easy to hide—it has to eat its flourishes, or risk the crime of showing-off—I wasn’t doing anything, just humming to myself, plotting transformation…

Outsider artists know something that is glaringly obvious—something that we educated types deny in favour of critical acumen: inside the act of assembly, you can’t make a mistake.

This becomes more true, the more we realize it—let the choosing of the next bit, next word, be instantaneous—and your quick choice will often reveal itself as most discerning, even beautiful.

Our quirks & errors are radiant, if we accept them. Of course, we’ve been taught differently.  And certainly the lesson of my raising was that I stank, had nothing to offer, could not give.

I came to poetry thanks to Shame & Absurdity. My henchmen!

SG: Many of your poems mine personal experience as they speak to the human condition more generally. You’re also an engaged reader of both poetry and poetics. What, to you, as poet and reader, marks the difference between the personal and the private, and is it a difference that matters?

PH: The classical answer is: a poem can be embarrassing to read if the poet’s desperation has not passed into some pattern, if the poet has used no devices to distance her personal anguish from the reader.

Otherwise, there is no—I use Wendell Berry’s word here—decorum. It is a matter of choosing the right insulation against the raw.

But we also get uncomfortable when a poem does what we haven’t seen a poem do before, or if it describes something we haven’t heard talked about in a poem before.

Who wants to consider the broken glass between “the back wings” of the hospital?  William Carlos Williams did.

Seeing only what we have already seen makes the whole world seem personal.
The unfamiliar is perhaps not alien, but private.

I guess I think of “private” as more crucial than “personal.” They are country mouse and city mouse—one hungry, one nervous.

What is gross about the slimy Alien is not its voracious design, but its nightwater sex dirt echoes. We would shut the door. The book. The cosmos.

I like raw. I like decorum. I like to know that the poem isn’t just someone swearing at me or lulling me with clever imagery.

Francis Bacon said he believed in "a deeply ordered chaos."

Or in Alice Notley’s long works I witness what might be called a “raw decorum.” She is singing. It’s complicated, but she is singing. Her rough band plays Caring For Us All beautifully.

The Lyric would interest me less if I didn’t still believe to be true our old slogan—the personal is political. This means that privacy can be where the revolution starts.

I will trust you with a hard secret / this little tune that many have told / I change myself by telling / you are changed by hearing / all is changed / nothing is sold.

SG: What’s inspiring you these days?

Well, on good days, I inspire the next syllable by remembering Raymond Carver’s best bit of advice: no cheap tricks.

I’ve been relishing the essays of Peter Quartermain—Disjunctive Poetics (1992), and now I’m reading his new book, Stubborn Poetics (2013).

Frank Bidart floors me! Lara Glenum’s new book, Pop Corpse, is wild—it uses sexual grotesqueries to defy misogyny.  Alice Oswald I find equally tremendous, tame, tracking the English rivers…repeating the names of the dead Greeks…

Robert Duncan continues to be my Master. And I am reading through J M Coetzee’s novels—coming to them embarrassingly late…

Phil Hall’s most recent book, X,  is a deluxe limited edition from Thee Hellbox Press of Kingston, a collaboration with the book artist/printer Hugh Barclay, and the visual artist, Michèle LaRose. He is currently mentoring in the Wired Writing Program, Banff Centre for the Arts. Read his poem from "Lake's End" here.

Phil Hall: A New Poem

Phil Hall
from Lake’s End

 Early     can still catch     out     writing at its oldest posture

to set down care alone     & quiet matters     personal defiant fleet
 to dare from self-loathing     the eternal     & then erase it

I want little more     have always wanted      the littles     more    
 now than     another morning to say     what’s been said     already

another morning     to waste     figuring out     uselessly     how to
 stick in somewhere here     screws for dragon-fly lights     (a note I found)    

I want this in my poem     is all     & ruin at bay     for my loved ones

Read my interview with Phil Hall here

November 12, 2013

In Conversation with Katia Grubisic

photo by J. Parr
A few weeks ago I caught up with Katia Grubisic over a beverage at one of our favorite drinkeries. We talked between bites of extravagantly delicious cheese and bread.

SUSAN GILLIS: How did you first come to poetry?

KATIA GRUBISIC: I only heard this story a few years ago, long after my apparent début. Apparently, when I was about three, I marched into the living room, planted myself there and declaimed “La nuit est noire. La nuit / est noire.” The line break is my father’s recollection, or addition. Observed detail with figurative implications, the undermining and expanding of repetition…. Ta-dah!

I could very well have become a Duke of Hazzard, and now be recounting the family lore in which Katia refused to get in or out of the car except through the window. But I’ve had that little, inexplicable poetry elf whispering in my ear for as long as I can remember: lines, ways of looking at the world. I also recall that first awareness that there exists such a thing as craft, or editing—in high school, I had an a-ha moment when a teacher suggested a thesaurus and white space, and, later, reading closely and separating the self from the object of the poem, which open up exciting edits. Who does the poem want to be? Where does it want to go?

SG: You are fluent or comfortable in more than a couple of languages. How does this linguistic flexibility shape and influence your poems?

KG: Living in multiple languages can’t help but change not just the way we write, but the way we are, though it’s impossible to know our different, multiple selves. Professionally speaking, I run into it all the time—fighting for a borrowed neologism in an article, trying to convince myself that a gallicism will be understood in a translation when I’m really just being lazy, forgetting words at readings because another language clearly does it better… I try not to dissect the genesis of poems, but I think the multiple linguistic layers are most present at the early stages, when opposite meanings, similar words, or even just echoes that only I apparently hear, pop up. In What if red ran out, for instance, there is a poem called “Loose Rope Tantrum,” about a tightrope walker. In Spanish, cuerda floja literally means loose rope, which got me, and the poem’s tightrope walker, going. Of course, you don’t have to actually speak a language to have meaning sparked that way, and, in any event, most of those sparks are indiscernible by the time a poem is fully on fire.

SG: What are you reading now?

KG: My pile includes a Williams Carlos Williams selected to which I’ve kept returning, and Steven Heighton’s recent collection of short stories, The Dead Are More Visible. And I love, love Colum McCann, but for some reason haven’t really been able to get into his last novel TransAtlantic. Also a bunch of books on torture, violence and martyrdom.

Katia Grubisic is a writer, editor and translator. Her work has appeared in various Canadian and international publications, and her collection of poems What if red ran out won the Gerald Lampert award for best first book. Read her poem "Paradise, Dam, North Shore" here.


Katia Grubisic

It prods with its beak
the heaving flanks, lets the fish wait
for death. The heron too waits. Its feet wrap the rock
like gnarled lichen and its breath rises
and ends someplace deep and slow. Desire
is a vertiginous warmth spread slowly;

has it really to do with hunger? I trace
circles on the shale, my scratch
in this ordinary riparian melodrama: the dammed river,
the rapids’ patient frenzy, the black-capped night herons
lined up on the shore, poised, eager and pathetic

but the one who gets it is the great grey-blue,
who dips in and spears the carp,
forces the skin apart, slits it like a mouth
before swallowing it whole. There is no forethought
to concupiscence. We are thinking

of paradise, which is not thinking at all.
We like the enfolding conflagration, we like
swallowing it whole. Later I will barely recall
that moment’s mindless hunt
as I push against my lover, not telling
of the flat, fat, silvery body
pulsing at the mouth of its captor.

from What if red ran out. Goose Lane Editions, 2008. First published in The Fiddlehead, 235.

Read my conversation with Katia Grubisic here.

November 11, 2013

So Many Someones: Wislawa Szymborska's The End and the Beginning

The Last Post, the moment of silence (smell of Dustbane in the school auditorium, soft breathing nearby, a throat cleared, stiff rustle of wool sleeves, the gym floor creaking lightly), the act of remembrance.

"In Flanders Fields" again instead of Wilfred Owen. A felt poppy on a collar. The rows of shining medals, the poppy as badge,  ceremonies that celebrate it all, glorification of war as itself, as enterprise.

I can’t decide if this poem by Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska makes me want to wear a poppy (“But already there are those nearby/starting to mill about/ who will find it dull”) or not wear a poppy (“Those who knew /what was going on here /must make way for/ those who know little”). 

It's recognizable Szymborska: the typical direct-seeming understatement underpinned by sharp images, at moments brutal in their straightforwardness. I find it heavier-handed than many of her poems. The wagons, the scum, the unsevered head; the dragging, the glazing, the rehanging of doors. A galvanizing moment, the one instance of passive voice in this poem: "sleeves will go ragged /from being rolled up."

Those rusted-out arguments that keep being unearthed.

The grass and sky. The silent contemplation of.

The End and the Beginning
Wisława Szymborska, translated by Joanna Trzeciak


Wisława Szymborska, translated by Joanna Trzeciak 

After every war

someone has to clean up.

Things won’t

straighten themselves up, after all.

Someone has to push the rubble

to the side of the road,

so the corpse-filled wagons

can pass.

Someone has to get mired

in scum and ashes,

sofa springs,

splintered glass,

and bloody rags.

Someone has to drag in a girder

to prop up a wall.

Someone has to glaze a window,

rehang a door.

Photogenic it’s not,

and takes years.

All the cameras have left

for another war.

We’ll need the bridges back,

and new railway stations.

Sleeves will go ragged

from rolling them up.

Someone, broom in hand,

still recalls the way it was.

Someone else listens

and nods with unsevered head.

But already there are those nearby

starting to mill about

who will find it dull.

From out of the bushes

sometimes someone still unearths

rusted-out arguments

and carries them to the garbage pile.

Those who knew

what was going on here

must make way for

those who know little.

And less than little.

And finally as little as nothing.

In the grass that has overgrown

causes and effects,

someone must be stretched out

blade of grass in his mouth

gazing at the clouds.

November 5, 2013


Franz Wright
after Picasso

It is the little girl
guiding the minotaur
with her free hand--
that devourer

and all the terror he's accustomed to
effortlessly emanating,
his ability to paralyze
merely by becoming present,

entranced somehow, and transformed
into a bewildered
and who knows, grateful

and with the other hand
lifting her lamp.


Courtesy of RGBStock Images

Did it just start raining, or did I just start seeing it?

Morning, early, and I'm at my study window, thinking about the way parts of a poem come forward as I read or listen, while other parts recede.

When I was very young my father took me to an exhibition of giant images projected on a screen that broke into huge moving blocks, sliding forward and back silently, a precursor of 3D pixelation, of holography, that terrified me. The world was breaking up before my eyes!

It was a terror that fascinated me. I have little memory of the images themselves. Was there a story? I don't recall; it was a pastiche, full of unpredictable life and movement.

Diapolyecran, Czechoslovakia Pavilion, Expo 67

In poems, the advance-and-recede effect creates a quality I want to handle. Not texture, but pliability. Pattern that isn't decoration. Pattern that is its own structure.

In "Depiction of Childhood," Franz Wright guides us through the details, pausing now on one, now another, speaking about them with a conversational yet tightly-strung air that grips and sends shivers through me.

A few days ago I opened the curtains to a sky so dark and clear I could see constellations, even here in the heart of the city. The day before, puffball clouds hung like abandoned hornets' nests in a cartoon sky.

The morning I write this, darkness itself is cloudy. The street lamp's orange glow sinks into branches, electrical wires; breaks into threads of rain, gathers again. Way off over the expressway, a slice of sky appears under the cloud line, a deep blue I want to hold against my skin. Did the cloud cover lift, or did I just start seeing it?

Courtesy of Red Edge Images