Sunday 26 June 2016

Sunday Poem


One day I take a little razor and shave it all off.
Looking obscenely young, I admire myself,
head bent or staring forward in a mirror.
Cool and young and sexy,
I’m available, stripped to possibility.
Discover me or I need to discover myself.
For in the shower every drop of water is felt.
I am exposed and experience it as an intrusion.
Hair is an extra layer of skin, a means not to feel.
Being now so naked I sense my modesty even with clothes on.
Edge a blade across my most intimate skin,
a clean, marble look, with a slight rose glow.
By evening, there is a blue tinge,
little heads below the skin,
a female five o’clock shadow.
Shaving then isn’t an option.
It speeds growth and thickens the bush.
It leaves a latent feel of uncleanliness.

I try waxing a stylish square of hair.
Return to a woman where I don’t mind unfolding my legs.
She touches without fearing the smell of me.
Obviously one showers comprehensively
before such an intimate appointment.
She cleans me up and pats me dry like a baby.
But after, the sides are red,
the pores stand out,
little specks of blood where tough hairs were extracted,
discolorations in the soft folds between thigh and pelvis,
a bikini wax gone wrong, the sensitivity
of my pubis renders it unsightly.
After a number of days the region temporarily
settles into cinematic perfection.
Before the hair grows out, still too short to redo.
There’s an acid lotion that eats away the hair.
You smear it on like cream,
scrape it off with a pink plastic tool,
scared to burn your fingers
while lathering it directly on intimacy.
It stinks of putrefaction and dissolution of tissue.
Why complain, professionals say,
laser hair removal is permanent.
Permanence sounds traditional. I flee.

Initially when I decided to tidy up pubic hair,
I was told, there are styles, you need to choose an identity.
Do you want nothing,
a strip of hair,
a pattern?
If you leave some, will it be trimmed or naturally curled?
People like to say, au naturel, as if it’s funny
or an aesthetic choice to be yourself.
Hair has a life of its own. It splits,
two hairs per root.
It bursts through the surface, pubescence vying with maturity.
Or it won’t grow at all, sticking beneath the skin,
a type of pelvic acne. I read somewhere,
who cares, just pop them as you’d do on your face
I’m shocked, can’t believe what I see.

It’s all about surface.
To do with connecting the inner and outer planes
of body, while also destructing
the flatness of skin.
When hair is removed, uniformity is installed.
Feeling the leg, so smooth, but empty.
One-sided touch, a hand running along skin,
but body not reaching back.
Surface can mean that which is obvious,
or that which is not obvious at all.
Like the area of my visible body, a first superficial layer.
Like what still needs to surface, what is hidden deeper.
It’s in submission then, with a gesture of penitence,
that one day I start removing my body hair one by one,
plucking each out with a pair of tweezers.
The guilt of imperfection weighs me down.
I sense that my body is in the wrong.
It should be crystal clear.
By Klara du Plessis, from Wax Lyrical (Anstruther Press, 2015)

The Mind's Motifs

Michael Prior discusses his preference for poetry books that are eclectic rather than conceptual:
I wouldn't exactly say I'm wary about books that begin as conceptual projects (there are so many excellent, conceptually focused or "project"-based books) but in general, I tend to prefer a collection’s eclectic approach, its arbitrary, temporal origins (a poet’s most engaging poems written during a given period). I like to see a mind’s motifs and predilections not only in conversation, but also in heated argument—and in my experience, this seems to happen more surprisingly when a poet hasn’t set out to write a “project,” but rather, when individual poems, written without pretense of future assembly, end up in restless dialogue. Of course, I’m being a little facile: the boundaries between collection and project are undeniably porous: where does one end and the other begin? I very well may have written a book that could be categorized as a project, but while drafting the poems in Model Disciple, I avoided thinking of the book that way because I was worried that a conscious conceptual focus might influence the sort of poems I was writing, or, ultimately, which poems made it into the book: I was afraid that if I were writing toward a set of thematic and theoretical end goals, I would distract myself from saying what I needed to, in the way I needed to.

Sunday 19 June 2016

Sunday Poem

My father bequeathed me no wide estates;
No keys and ledgers were my heritage;
Only some holy books with yahrzeit dates
Writ mournfully upon a blank front page—
Books of the Baal Shem Tov, and of his wonders;
Pamphlets upon the devil and his crew;
Prayers against road demons, witches, thunders;
And sundry other tomes for a good Jew. 
Beautiful: though no pictures on them, save
The scorpion crawling on a printed track;
The Virgin floating on a scriptural wave,
Square letters twinkling in the Zodiac. 
The snuff left on this page, now brown and old,
The tallow stains of midnight liturgy—
These are my coat of arms, and these unfold
My noble lineage, my proud ancestry! 
And my tears, too, have stained this heirloomed ground,
When reading in these treatises some weird
Miracle, I turned a leaf and found
A white hair fallen from my father's beard.
By A.M. Klein, from Complete Poems (ed. Zailig Pollock, University of Toronto Press, 1990)

Saturday 18 June 2016

Letting It All Out

Momina Mela wonders if the term "confessional poetry" should still be used:
Confessional poetry has always faced the difficulty of carving out a definition for itself, particularly due to the autobiographical elements attached to it and the various psychological interpretations it issues. The act of confessing depicts a disclosure of ‘sinful’ activities or intentions and brings forth the admittance of one’s guilt, thereby attaching an accusatory semblance to the work of confessional poets. The term itself was coined by M.L Rosenthal in reviewing Robert Lowell’s Life Studies, who immediately realized the problem with using this term as he later made a statement in The New Poets against its usage: ‘It was a term both helpful and too limited, and very possibly the conception of a confessional school has by now done a certain amount of damage.’
Cate Marvin agrees about the damage:
Confessional poetry is, to my mind, more slippery than poems that are sloppily autobiographical; I find the confessional mode much more akin to dramatic monologue. Lowell, Plath, Berryman, et al., were masters of their craft and brilliant manipulators. I’ve been at work on an essay that deals particularly with how female confessional poets were/are received, for their situation was different from their male counterparts. It was enough for male confessional poets to admit a weakness, whether that be depression, alcoholism, etc. Female confessional poets literally disrobed, discussed the female body, and revealed their uglier (angrier) selves. Poets like Plath refused to present their intelligence in a coded fashion. I wish people would think more carefully about what they mean when they use the word “confessional” because it’s been bandied about for some time now as a negative term. And this discredits the work of some of our finest poets from the latter half of the twentieth century.
For Jake Orbison, the term discredits the very art used to make the poetry feel so "naked":
To claim this intense exploration and exposition as a form of nakedness, as Rosenthal did, undermines the project of these poets. It misses the seamless, yet immense artifice required in their work. It ignores the amazing and apparently painful transformation that turns Berryman into his famous avatar, Henry, and Henry into his company of hideous characters. Of course, there are inevitable and immediate differences separating the lyric “I” from the living, breathing poet. “Henry pays no income tax… Henry doesn’t have any bats.” But part of what we find exhilarating and new about this moment is the elegance that renders extremity and grotesqueness as “naked” expression. As if underneath all of us there were a book of confessional poetry, waiting to be exhumed; as if the emotion that these poems track down and lay bare were not those same ones our subconscious spends all day and night avoiding.

Little Life Raft

Vincent Colistro reflects on the relationship between poetry and comedy:
I think you’re right there’s a link between poets and comedians. Both inspect and wrestle with the status quo, and both do so to share the experience of discovery. But I think comedy has unseated poetry over the past 100 years in popular culture because its core purpose is more straightforward—laughter. The other stuff, the “Thinky Pain” as Marc Maron puts it, gets to tag along like a rider provision in a congress bill. Comedy has this way of leading different interpretations to the same general response—again, laughter. Poetry doesn’t have a core purpose as easily definable as comedy (look at all the ink spilled everywhere), so maybe people are unsure what they’re supposed to glean from it, or how they’re to react. I love poetry for that. I love that a single line can elicit all sorts of interpretations. The reason I guess that I use humour sometimes is to toss a little life raft into the storm and say, let’s all convene to have the same response to something, if just for a moment. It’s a cheap way to scooch your audience closer.

Friday 10 June 2016

How I Lost the Plot (It’s a Good Thing, Too)

by Lydia Perović

We like things happening rather than not, we prefer continuity to contingency, purpose to chance, narration to meaninglessness. Alasdair MacIntyre is still right: humans are storytelling animals. That’s how we are as readers of books and as readers of our own lives. We talk of characters, events, arc, movement through time, one thing following another; that is our vernacular. Even in our fairly secular societies, we continue to need to re-enchant the world through the fabrication that is the story and the many shapes it assumes through different media.

You may ask, But isn’t the alternative too unpleasant? The answer depends on how you view literature’s purpose. If it’s there to offer comfort from the harsh world, or appease worries, or offer escape, if it’s used to give the mind a few hours of rest by engaging it in a well-told story, then we play on different teams.

I suspect I’m forever expelled from that particular paradise, of taking pleasure from stories and plot. I can’t pretend to having come even close to understanding what great fiction does, but it’s not that kind of consoling re-enchantment. Any consoling happens secondarily, not by design. Yes, Iris Murdoch, I hear you, “Great art cannot but console what it weeps over.” But this weeping nevertheless remains. Is it over the loss of continuity, the loss of purpose, or the hope in hell that Might won’t always make Right?

Great writing is, I suspect, in the business of a certain kind of truth-telling. It’s a kind of work, perhaps a work of conceptualizing, perhaps a work of play, that the reader and the author undertake together. It does not pretend that everything eliminated for a good story to exist does not actually exist. Rather, great writing is interested in what’s on the cutting room floor. It’s equally interested in those sides of life that are unreachable, invisible, unknowable or empty. It doesn’t run away from the void.

Of the many books that have influenced my thinking around the time I started writing All That Sang – a book trying to settle itself around a void – a few stand out.

There is Siri Hustvedt’s portrait of the artist as a woman, The Blazing World (2014). As an experiment in gendered reception, said artist decides to present her work to the world through men of her choice, the three artists who have agreed to the game. Little else is straightforward: multiple voices argue and speculate about the artist, her work and her reasons, but we never dip into the central character. The woman making art is not heard. An echo of what has been happening with women artists for centuries? Or a line of escape from other people’s narratives, a window of freedom?

Then there’s Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn & Child (2012), which begins as a police procedural set in North London, but then we zoom high up and the storytelling peters out in rivulets. What we follow are side views from the margins, people who may or may not be involved in whatever the central event will turn out to be. The two titular detectives occasionally reappear amid the other voices, but by the time they reunite in the final chapter, we realize we didn’t even grasp much of their relationship, let alone discern what exactly, if anything, is taking place in the centre of the book. Its core is disturbingly empty. What happened? And is it amenable to language?

There’s also Jean-Philippe Toussaint and his novels that explore the interstices of living. Some of his works are like a photographic negative, the usual story-forming elements made invisible and the rest, the useless in-between, brought forth. Which is not to say there are no things happening in sequence or some storifying in his work. What happens, however, is often the result of unknown forces, or absurd to the point of comedy. Comparisons with Jacques Tati’s films that appear in blurbs of his books are very apposite. The thingness of things conspires against the narrator, the finicky technology, missed trains, mystifying traffic rules, capricious ball trajectories in the game of boules, the time sucking device that is television.

And then there are the interstices. Camera is especially instructive: two thirds in, the absurdist, comic mode is replaced by a more somber, more static infinitesimal consciousness of the passing of time. The narrator, alone in a photo booth, ponders the moment when in the course of thinking, “you move progressively from the struggle of living to the despair of being.” There are the constant struggles (for food, shelter, bodily integrity, making the plane on time), but sometimes we pause them long enough to wonder, Why is that I’m doing this, again?

There are many other great writers of not-a-story, many daring thinkers of the void and of the cacophony. Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway is a cubist view of a life and a city. Harold Pinter was a master of the invisible, unutterable core. These things find me now with exciting frequency. The other day somebody on Twitter recommended Joanna Hogg’s film Archipelago, and what do you know, it too is of the family: much is said through the unsaid.  

As for the unconscious influences on what we do, they are legion. On rare occasion they’ll come out into the light of day. The other night I was tidying the picture folders on my computer and come across this old JPG of the plinth on the Gwendolyn MacEwen statue in an Annex parkette that I took years ago. Could the tenor of the last small chapter in All That Sang have come out of this memory? The two share the general idea of the nonlinearity of time in the face of grief and joy.

Probably not. I should be so lucky. Who knows? Nobody, much. But the dancing will go on.

Sunday 5 June 2016

Sunday Poem

We killed with the best of intentions.
The goals that we died for were sound.
The notions we killed for were sterling,
our motives the sort that one mentions,
frankly, with pride.
                            Quit scrupling,
quibbling, lying down
and lay this down:
                            Bad guys by the graveful we gunned down so girls, little girls
by the classful, could go to school. Girls, too, busing to school,
           we slew so girls could go to school unharmed, in error
we slew them, with better intentions, bad eggs however we harmed
           to win hearts, warm cockles, gain guts and livers and
                           limbs and minds
with decent intentions, good eggs we even armed (only good eggs
           armed)—the rest we smashed, truncated,
atomized until the doves among us
                                                   buckled, seldom seeing dead men un-
           dismantled, while heads of this and that kept touting,
hawking our cause like crack,
           our crystal intentions, motives one mentions
especially when aim is less than exact
            and friendlies get fried… 
With downsized intentions we killed and we strafed
and we mortared and missiled and mined,
sniped too, droned too,
           till we wilted to haunts in OSI wards, nightly
wading tarns and tar-ponds incarnadine,
and they dosed and discharged and forsook us,
but on we kept killing with credible reasons
in a lush neural loop of gibbering visions
from hovering gunships, maniacally hooting,
culling the groundlings with motives forgotten
to a playlist of metal eternally cycling… 
Of course, looking back, you would like to reboot
and start over, but there is no over—
this spraying and shredding forever recursive—
this Gatling drum always ample with ammo—
and papa and papa our weapons keep bleating—
a ceaseless returning and endless rehearsing—
you’re killing with the best of
with the best of them
killing with the best of
with the best of them, killing,
By Steven Heighton. from The Walking Comes Late (Anansi, 2016)

Saturday 4 June 2016

Reality is all Flux

Steven Heighton on the laziness of literary labels:
I mistrust all labels (who doesn’t?) and despise custodial nouns like “formalist” or “experimentalist.” I expect you feel the same way—that nouning the world is an unhealthy, essentially lazy practice. Yet we all do it, and we do it for the same reason that we map territories— to help us immobilize the chaos and navigate it. But the practice creates verbal/mental berms against reality, since reality is all flux: growth, decay, death, rebirth etc. Any artist should want to resist being nouned into nullity that way— being pinned down or penned in (pun unintentional) by abstract descriptions. Only verbs, especially present participles, can really capture what artists are trying to do— and then only for a moment. So when labellers libel Christian Bök as a mere “avant-gardist” or “Oulipian,” or describe Amanda Jernigan as a “formalist” or “neo-formalist,” I get frustrated and impatient.

As for my actual writing, I’ll use techniques that could be described as “formalist” if a particular poem seems to demand them; or I’ll write a poem that will look, on the page, almost Black Mountainish if that’s what the evolving poem seems to require. To me, such flexibility of approach is essentially just what it means to be a poet— you pledge allegiance to poetry, to language, and to the work of trying to re-enact poetic impulses in the most effective way possible, rather than flashing your membership card in the “experimental” or “lyrical” school. Or any number of other schools.

Ink Addict

Gerry Cambridge discusses how his twin obsessions—fountain pens and poetry—come together:
I am not really a collector. I like to use all my pens. But I love associations—connections that increase the significance of a pen, even if only for me. Poetry is, after all, partly the art of seeing connections—the root of metaphor. One of my pens, a woodgrain-finish Onoto, was made in 1930. I bought it partly because in that year my mother was born. Another pen I bought in America, after giving a talk there on Richard Wilbur—who had been sitting, unexpectedly, in the audience. That pen had been made in 1947: the year Wilbur’s first book of poems, The Beautiful Changes, was published. Some years ago I was writing an essay about an acutely psychological poem of Robert Frost’s, ‘The Exposed Nest’. I was drafting the essay with a 1910 Waterman ‘eyedropper’—so called because you fill its barrel with ink from an eyedropper. I realised with a start that the pen had been made not long before Frost’s poem was written.

Such seemingly insignificant connections are a source of considerable satisfaction if you spend much of your life, as I do, head-down in the wordy thickets. As a vocation, poetry is perhaps unusually liable to obscurity, ignominy and penury. Anything a poet can do to make the hands-on, messy element of writing more entertaining, colourful and, well, personal, is a gift.