Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Friday, May 2 @ 7:30 p.m. featuring Tess Taylor, David Koehn and Dean Rader, plus music by Oa

Please join us on Friday, May 2 at 7:30 p.m. for a reading with Tess Taylor, David Koehn and Dean Rader, 
with a special performance by Oa

Admission is FREE.
Beverages and snacks will be served.


Tess Taylor has received writing fellowships from Amherst College, the American Antiquarian Society, the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation, the International Center for Jefferson Studies, the Headlands Center for the Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. Her chapbook, The Misremembered World, was selected by Eavan Boland and published by the Poetry Society of America, and her poetry and nonfiction have appeared in The Atlantic, Boston Review, Harvard Review, Literary Imagination, The Times Literary Supplement, and The New Yorker. Her essay, "The Waste Land App" published in The Threepenny Review, won a 2013 Pushcart Prize. She currently reviews poetry for NPR’s All Things Considered and teaches writing at Whittier College. She lives in El Cerrito, California. Her book of poems, The Forage House, is published by Red Hen Press.

David Koehn's poetry and translations were previously collected in two chapbooks, Tunic, (speCt! books, 2013) a small collection of some of his translations of Catullus, and Coil (University of Alaska, 1998), winner of the Midnight Sun Chapbook Contest. David's first full length manuscript, Twine, now available from Bauhan Publishing, won the 2013 May Sarton Poetry Prize. David's poetry has appeared in a wide range of literary magazines including Kenyon Review, New England Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Rhino, Volt, Carolina Quarterly, New York Quarterly, Diagram and many others. His essays and reviews have appeared online and in print across a similar variety of magazines and he currently writes and runs a first book interview series called First Verse for Omniverse.us, the Web property of Omnidawn Press.

Dean Rader’s debut collection of poems, Works & Days, won the 2010 T. S. Eliot Poetry Prize. His newest collection, Landscape Portrait Figure Form (Omnidawn) was named by the Barnes & Noble Review as one of the Best Books of Poetry of 2013. Recent poems appear or will appear in Best American Poetry 2012, Boston Review, Kenyon Review, Southern Review, TriQuarterly, Ninth Letter, Colorado Review, and Zyzzyva, which featured a folio of his poems in their fall 2013 issue. He reviews and writes about poetry regularly for The Huffington Post, The Rumpus, and The San Francisco Chronicle. Rader recently edited an anthology entitled 99 Poems for the 99 Percent, forthcoming in 2014. He is chair of the English Department at the University of San Francisco. You can read more of his work at deanrader.com.



+ MUSIC BY Oa

Hugh Behm-Steinberg (words, samples & electronics)

Hugh Behm–Steinberg is the author of Shy Green Fields (No Tell Books) and The Opposite of Work (JackLeg Press). His libretto for a children's opera, The Clever Wife, debuted in Houston in January 2012. He teaches in the MFA Writing program at California College of the Arts, where he edits the journal Eleven Eleven.

Matt Davignon (words, samples & electronics)

Matt Davignon is an experimental musician living in Oakland,California. Since 1993, he has focused on developing his own unique style of music, which is largely characterized by organic textures, arrhythmic patterns, musical imperfections and occasional elements from pop music. Historically, he has worked extensively with fx pedals, household objects, live sound collage, consumer-grade electronics, prepared instruments, real-time sampling/looping, turntablism, field recordings and cassette recorders. 

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Friday, April 4 @ 7:30 p.m. featuring Elizabeth Robinson, Steven Seidenberg and Donna Stonecipher

Please join us on Friday, April 4 @ 7:30 p.m. for an evening of poetry with Elizabeth Robinson, Steven Seidenberg 
and Donna Stonecipher

Admission is FREE.
Beverages and snacks will be served.

Elizabeth Robinson is the author, most recently, of the poetry collections BlueHeron, Counterpart, and Three Novels.  Her mixed genre meditation, On Ghosts, is a finalist for the Los Angeles Times book award. Robinson has been the recipient of grants from the Fund for Poetry, the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, and the Boomerang Foundation.  She co-edits Instance Press and the literary periodical pallaksch.pallaksch.



Steven Seidenberg is a San Francisco based writer and artist. His first book of lyric, philosophical prose, Itch, was released from RAW ArT Press in January 2014. He is the author of three chapbooks of poetry, including Songs of Surrender, and most recently, Null Set from Spooky Actions Books. He is co-editor of the poetry journal pallaksch.pallaksch.



Donna Stonecipher is the author of three books of poetry, most recently The Cosmopolitan (winner of the National Poetry Series, published by Coffee House Press, 2008).  She lives in Berlin, where she translates from German and French; her translation of Ludwig Hohl's novella Ascent was published by Black Square Editions in 2012. She is currently a visiting assistant professor at the University of Iowa.

Friday, March 7, 2014

A Conversation: Diana Arterian and Sheila Davies Sumner


after-timbre
a conversation between Diana Arterian and Sheila Davies Sumner

“Death is, of course, the terrifying specter that haunts all of us, but I am not nearly as obsessed with it as many of my writer friends are.”
-Diana Arterian

Sheila Davies Sumner: I've read your amazing Death Centos (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2013) three times (& more to come). It’s invigorating, doleful, and funny all at once. And complex in a whole bunch of ways. So I'm going to start our conversation with a couple of questions which I hope aren’t too huge or too simple. But, I’m curious! –– because your little chapbook is having a profound half-life for me. Especially the opening quote, the last words from Jacques Arterian, your grandfather.  Did the cento form choose you? Or did you find that particular form of poetics to fit your idea? What were the circumstances and the evolution?

Diana Arterian: Thanks so much for the kind words! I'm glad to hear you liked it. Strangely enough, my grandfather's last words were unknown to me until I had completed the manuscript. I was telling my older sister about Death Centos and she suggested I include them as they are quite remarkable. It didn't feel quite right to set him alongside historical figures/cults of personality, however, so I felt an epigraph was best. I realize this may be slightly misleading, making the reader think his last words guided or inspired the chapbook. Mostly, they are a kind of personal ephemera that I love and wanted to include.

The cento form came to me by a few different avenues. I had written "collage" poems in the past while in college, not really knowing what I was doing. I did a similar thing while earning my MFA, thinking I was inventing something. That old delusion! Then I learned of the cento from Christian Hawkey's Ventrakl, and realized what I was doing was basically an age-old form dating back to the 3rd century. 

I should say, though, I'm technically warping the form, in which you gather quotations from a particular poet and place them together in a new poetic entity. So, taking last words of people before they die and calling the result a "cento" is a bit of a nod to the people who spoke, and what their iterations become when placed beside another's.

SDS: Yes, your grandfather’s words are remarkable. The epigraph works well because of its inclusiveness –– an ordinary man is brought into relationship with the historical and cult figures. Your grandfather’s dying words challenge the fear of death with its lively emotional opposite.

Death Centos is an exquisite work of minimalism. Intertextuality is right there on each page –– who said it and what they said. The poems read horizontally across the page; then a quarter turn of the book brings their sources pleasurably into view. Was there a lot of trial and error in the design work?

DA: The interior was actually done by my editor Linda Trimbath and was almost exactly as you see it when she sent me a draft. I may have asked for a font change, but the genius of where to put the names and to have them be slightly grey – all her idea. Ugly Duckling does incredible books and chapbooks. Natalia Porter did the beautiful cover as well as the special edition broadside. I was floored when I finally got both of these in-hand…

SDS:  You have selected, across two centuries, the dying words of such disparate speakers as Archimedes, Emily Dickinson, and Jesse James. It seems like “warping the form” has allowed a recasting of last words into whole-sonic cloth. There’s this wonderful crosscurrent of undertones among the dead. I hear Death Centos as a ‘milestone’ text –– a staging of the last act of human life, with Death starring as muse, archetypal speaker and poet. Can you speak to this interpretation?

DA: A lovely and flattering reading! I don’t know that I was looking at it as complex an idea as that when writing these pieces. Part of me hopes to avoid any nostalgia surrounding death. The West’s interest in last words came about initially with the idea of a “good” Christian death in which the person would give final benedictions, words of wisdom, confessions, etc. Then as the public’s trust in the absolute nature of heaven began to wane, suddenly these last words gave us access to something else and perhaps more terrifying – a glimpse into the dark unknown of what comes after.

But of course last words are far more complicated than that and involve more of the body than we want to own up to. There are people heavily medicated on narcotics and hardly aware of their surroundings, even unable to really speak. Delirium and illness play perhaps more tangible roles than Death (capital D) itself in a lot of ways.

The last words of the condemned may give us more insight than the others in this regard, as they are often said by people who are lucid, aware they are going to die, and (in the case of the US death penalty) that they have a moment just before death to say something that will be kept on record.

But to respond to your specific idea, I think what was driving a lot of these were the aesthetics of how the phrases felt/sounded in proximity to one another, as well as the apparent “messages” they hoped to deliver and how that could be formed into a bit of an arc or full idea in conjunction with one another.

SDS: Death Centos is divided into ‘Last Words of the Dying’ and ‘Last Words of the Condemned’. It feels as though contrasting parameters and ethics apply to the act of dying. Each group carries different emotional charges and pressures around the pain, comfort, burden, and energy of death. What’s behind your decision for making this division?

DA: When I was writing the poems I was coming across last words of people whose governments/enemies/etc. executed, and they didn’t quite “fit” with the others. There was a different issue at stake in those words. As someone who is very much against the death penalty, it felt important to have those work in conjunction with one another and create portraits of sorts for different kinds of deaths the words seemed to illustrate. Mostly though, it was about reminding the reader of the humanity of condemned persons, even those who are most terrifying and damaged. Of course it is easier to merely vilify those who have done horrible acts of violence, but I have little interest in anything that is easy, particularly when it involves the objectification and oppression of persons (criminal or otherwise).

SDS: There’s a whole political dimension to your thinking that I hadn’t considered. It’s true that some of the people quoted in Death Centos were ethically or politically controversial, such as Saddam Hussein and Karla Faye Tucker. Because of your directive to underscore the humanity of condemned persons, it sounds like the writing of their verse-portraits was both more and less difficult.

DA: I suppose so. I am less likely to believe in a person’s being “evil.” This is an easy thing to think (and simultaneously difficult, I guess – to think that evil exists is no easy thing). This is to say that if you write off someone as “evil” it flattens the situation. To me it’s more likely that there is damage that caused the person to act out cruel acts, and I am curious about that damage in conjunction with their humanity. These poems allow that, I think. Some final words that were actually quite sinister take a different timbre depending on the context. So their lives, too, perhaps.

SDS:  I read that hexameter verse was widely used in cento composition. Did you have a final set of verse schemes or metrical rules about how these last words would be joined into a poem? What guided or influenced you when fitting the cadences of quoted words into assembled couplets?

DA: Oh goodness, I wish I had the wherewithal to put this in hexameter! Really, form-wise, Death Centos is just an extended experiment of stitching. I tried to ensure a full line of sense-making thought from each phrase of last words would be in a single line or two, but that’s about as complicated as it got.

In terms of the couplets, that’s a good question. I think I had been reading a lot of books that use couplets, and it’s a nice little constraint when writing a cycle of work – I’ve since written an entire book in couplets. It gives the line a particular energy and also relief for the reader’s eye I am keen on, I suppose.

SDS: The ‘experiment of stitching’, reminds me of how the cento form is defined ––as “a patchwork text” or “a mosaic of phrases.” Returning to what you said earlier about “that old delusion”, I’m fascinated about your transition from collage to cento, losing one form but gaining another. Would you talk about the value and drawback of inventiveness when writing poetry?

DA:  A demanding question! I think it is a common confusion, particularly of younger poets like myself, to believe we are inventing something or thinking of it for the first time when, in fact, it’s been done before (in this case with a rich history!). I remember getting it in my head to write out all the different English translation variations of the first line of Dante’s Inferno—only to find that Caroline Bergvall had done it some years before! In some ways to find that the path has been trod before is actually kind of heartening. It creates a kinship between yourself and people from the past or even contemporary writers.

I suppose the only drawback with inventiveness (as inventors of physical things would probably attest) is that you can invent some pretty horrible things. That said, it’s all the means by which you do more valuable things in the future. I think I’d be some kind of scrooge if I believed there to be any real drawback to inventiveness.

SDS: In my reading of Death Centos, the awareness of being extinguished is foremost, and the sensation of being on the verge of personal extinction is deeply felt. I think this is part of the resonant half-life in your work which concentrates the journey between our nonverbal condition as infants –– first sounds and syllables –– and our unique deathbed confessions. Species articulation is one of our few (it seems) laudable traits. To find personal words for this transitory moment between life and death, in the midst of one’s final breath or conscious moments –– that’s quite an accomplishment, one you bring subtle attention to.

DA: A beautiful articulation – thank you!

SDS: How did you come to write on the subject of death? What was your process behind organizing the selection of authors and last words?

DA:  Honestly it was because I had heard the delirious last words of Stonewall Jackson while watching a Civil War documentary (“Let us cross the river and rest under the shade of trees”) and it was so powerful and affecting – in short, poetic – that I felt I should do some investigating to see what other last words were like. Of course not all of those I used are nearly as lyrical, but it was my entry point. Death is, of course, the terrifying specter that haunts all of us, but I am not nearly as obsessed with it as many of my writer friends are.

The organizing principle was mostly about the music the phrases allowed when close to one another. Every now and then I allowed something a bit more obvious (like the poem in which the last words are all those of authors).

SDS: Where is your work taking you now –– as a doctoral student at USC, and otherwise. What’s the shape of the poems you’re writing?

DA: I am in the thick of exam preparations right now, so sadly I haven’t had much time to write poems over the past few months. I’m working on (or, in any case, thinking about) a few manuscripts right now. I have my “creative” dissertation entitled Seiche which is a narrative collection of poems that also include found text and are about a polluted lake near my mother’s home, among many other things.

I also have a hybrid/book-length poem/lyric essay that I am most anxious to work on. I started it while earning my MFA but just had a round of really difficult but helpful workshops on a portion of it that has pointed me in an important direction. I’m also working translating poems by the deceased Afghani poet Nadia Anjuman which I really hope to finish this year.

Most recently there’s a short cycle I’ve done about Agrippina the Younger, Nero’s damningly driven mother and the many methods in which he tried to kill her and/or how the many historians of the time claim she died. The accounts are wild and varied, let me assure you. I think there will be a manuscript at the end of that, with personal experiences as well as explorations of historical events that happen in 30 seconds or less – that is the constraint I’m giving myself, anyway. The poems often dip into the fantastic and address violence against bodies.

So, a lot! I also co-run Ricochet Editions at USC, which is a thrilling creative endeavor, and recently became a Poetry Editor at Noemi Press. Publishing is something that is thoroughly exciting, demanding, and gratifying. I hope to continue working at it well beyond my time at USC.


Diana Arterian was born and raised in Arizona. She currently resides in Los Angeles where she is pursuing her PhD in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California. Diana is a Poetry Editor at Noemi Press, and creator and Managing Editor of Ricochet, a publisher of poetry and prose. Her own chapbook, Death Centos, was recently published by Ugly Duckling Presse, and her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, TwoSerious Ladies and The Volta, among others.


Sheila Davies Sumner has an MFA in Poetry from Saint Mary’s College of California. She has also written short stories which appeared in Rampike, Alcatraz 3, and in the graphic-story magazine, one of one, published by Burning Books. In addition, she has written and produced radio dramas, commissioned by New American Radio, including What is the Matter in Amy Glennon, which was nominated for the International Prix Futura Award. She is the Staff Writer for the Studio One Reading Series.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A Conversation: Brenda Hillman and Frances Richard


A Chain of Holes
A Conversation with Brenda Hillman & Frances Richard

Brenda and Frances, thank you for taking time to answer our questions and for your work, which provides a way out of our “consensual mass hallucination that’s mistakenly referred to as ‘reality’” (Rob Breszny). These questions arise from conversations we’ve had together about your work and about your latest books—Brenda: Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire (Wesleyan, 2013); and Frances: Anarch. (Futurepoem, 2012) and The Phonemes (Les Figues Press, 2012).

By immersing ourselves in your work, we have come to feel grounded in the irreducible and thus our hope is that these questions will help to further differentiate each of your thoughts and feelings about “ecopoetics” without imposing a need to explicate the diversity of the field via the singularity of definition.

—Sheila Davies Sumner & Casey McAlduff

NOTE: We would also like to thank Evelyn Reilly, whose poetry, thoughts and opinions helped inform the trajectory of this conversation. Her presence is throughout.
  
On The Imagination—

Sheila Davies Sumner & Casey McAlduff: In our readings and discussions of your work, we came to understand it as originating from the imagination and the belief that the imagination—because it doesn’t belong to ‘us’ but rather to a collective unconscious of all life— allows us to access a post-human-centered consciousness.  This breakthrough into the beyond-human has led us as readers to the beautifully shattering confrontation with our “species-position” (Reilly) and to embrace a “sensibility that doesn’t consider the human as somehow the keeper or steward of something that was given to us” (Hillman, from Angela Hume’s “Imagining Ecopoetics”). 

With these realizations (anti-hallucinations?) also comes the acknowledgement of our pervasive complacency and the artistic “imperative to work against the grain of what is complacently or autocratically given,” in order to “form a center of fierce desire—to refuse false choices” (Frances Richard, from a conversation with Anne Waldman, BOMB). 

These statements seem founded in a kind of personal coming-to; they point toward a time over which you each came to recognize that we have been terribly wrong.

Can you talk more about this moment or shift in your own consciousness and how it affects your daily life?

Brenda Hillman: Maybe most people are drawn to poetry by moments brought about by intense experiences things that take you beyond the limitations of consciousness to an “other” or group of “others” or to a mysterious thing you wish to define; these experiences have seemed humbling and are often accompanied by the realization that one just has no access to experiences these “others” have—whether those others are humans, fish, imagined tribes, rocks, books, the dead or molecules. Maybe it is the conviction that we are, if we are ego-bound and impose our will on others, just much more terribly limited.  When we are tiny children we try so hard to feel we exist and are not threatened by everyone who comes along and many humans don’t leave that stage… But what does it mean to realize we are everything and yet cannot know anything beyond our own skin with any certainty?  Nobody has complete access to another’s experience—we go there with a kind of hopeful empathy or projective imagination, and even then, we are profoundly limited. i was just out for a pathetically slow run along a busy road and i saw a squirrel that had just been struck—it had just died and the blood coming out of its neck seemed unearthly beyond magenta—not even red but almost glowing toward pink, a color nearly outside the concept of red, and really shocking. i had no idea what the squirrel’s experience was. i had just been studying Olson’s “The Kingfishers” for my Ecopoetics class and realized the squirrel’s and Olson’s experiences were inaccessible but at least Olson has words. 

Frances Richard: I never had a breakthrough moment when I stopped thinking that we (humans? Americans? English speakers? post-industrial global-networked capitalist-realist polluters?) were right, and understood instead that we are wrong. I never thought “we” were “right.” Last night, before the reading, I was talking with Brenda, Evelyn (Reilly), and Angie Hume about language and self-consciousness as human adaptations… Compared to adaptations that allow other creatures to read and respond to their environments and one another, humans are comically under-equipped. No echolocation like bats and whales; no internal magnetic compass like foxes and dogs; no inner electricity like rays and eels; no scent/dance math like ants and bees; no stamina compared to hummingbird or polar bear; no adaptability to drought and fire like succulents and redwoods. Certainly no perdurability like rocks; no scope like oceans. Etc. etc. etc. What evolution cooked up for humans is the reflexive, symbol-making mind. It’s very cool. But elephants’ minds also appear to be—insofar as we can know them, which is not well—incredibly impressive, and if “mind” is the wrong term for the nimbus of possibility generated by and between the brains of shrews, chameleons, bower birds, dung beetles, doesn’t this make “mind” a human-solipsistic term? We don’t understand even ourselves well. We act racist and jingoistic and fundamentalist, violent and selfish and foolish with catastrophic frequency. We’re stuck in language, stuck in the human perceptual apparatus, stuck, currently, in the 21st century. We damage each other, and we damage the mind-boggling array of energy-forms and matter-forms existing with us. Mind so boggled can’t be all that great.

This affects my daily life in that…. I try to write and teach from this perspective. I turn to the art I like best for help in thinking/feeling my way through it. I am often baffled, afraid, angry; overwhelmed by it; slightly less often but still often suffused by a mundane, proprioceptive, minorly ecstatic awe. I try to understand what ethical behavior is, and to behave accordingly. This feels dumb to write in discursive prose. I am reading a biography of Wittgenstein, who insisted that ethics could not be said, only shown, and also (enigmatically, maybe kind of infuriatingly) at least once turned his back and read Rabindranath Tagore out loud instead of lecturing on logic. Poetry is useful because to de-center our own minds is an irrational process, a chain of holes. It requires aporetic tools.

(While writing this, tutelary friends—liked, followed—have been hovering my thoughts: Eileen Myles, and ability-courage to call out cant =great word= and social abusiveness. Alice Notley, and embrace of vatic rage. Dana Ward, writing about his baby daughter. If a cyborg Eileen-Alice-Dana-insect-rock-fox wrote this, it would be better.)

SDS & CM: Can you also talk about how the imagination can lead us ethically and how, as innovation becomes corporatized, we can continue to distinguish between imaginative acts that further a post-human consciousness in a creative rather than a destructive way [fracking, for example]? How does your poetic work incorporate both forces?

Brenda Hillman: So, i’ve answered this question so much i worry that i’ll repeat myself and just want to refer people to one long discussion of this on the Poetry Society website (thanks, Brett Fletcher Lauer!):

Imagination is not good or bad in itself. In fact, i’m not even sure, as a concept, “imagination” makes the earth better—we have no way of knowing what would have happened had we not had The Tempest, Picasso or Tu Fu or…the “bad imagination” the atomic bomb...As the concept of imagination applies to art, we just want it to be boundless and unfettered.  It’s inevitable that when you start falling in love with an art like poetry, it feels good to allow for a somewhat anarchic zone. It’s rarely useful. When i think about values i’ve gotten from the practice of poetry, however, there are several things that certainly don’t hurt daily life: being able to put oneself outside the limits is one thing; being able to bear uncertainty and be flexible in a state of doubt is another. Extrapolating from the squirrel moment to all other moments i don’t understand, it is very hard to know how to behave ethically, what to do or not to do in relation to other species except to assume a zone of unknowing another. Most theories we are supposed to live by are ultimately unsatisfying, and i have become increasingly reliant on intuition, as Shelley says, better that poets remain ‘unacknowledged legislators.’ i tend to react unpredictably when things are not going well around me and i learned under stress as an activist in the last decade that i didn’t really know what i would do in the next moment; if students are being beaten, i forget what i said i was supposed not to do. In any case, imagination is a strange word that comes with a lot of baggage. There is something like a postmodern soul concept that seems capable of distributing reality among plants, animals and even cops at a protest. When i say soul i don’t mean the floaty filmy thing.  i mean that whether you are acting in a political situation or a purely poetic one, you act as if something in your experience could reflect a process without a center, could make meaning of that process even as it is going on. There is something about the intricacy and intimacy of those moments that is done by what used to be called the soul, and it’s all right to say that takes place in people. It is very tied with imagination and if you are trying to make meaning in relation to an other you know it is not ok to plot to bomb them or spray them.

Since most kinds of knowledge of spiritual and physical properties—sounds, sights— we will never have in this lifetime, we must imagine them. Poetry is one way of getting there.

Frances Richard: I tried above, imperfectly, to speak to “how the imagination can lead us ethically” (or how my own and other poets’ imaginations sometimes lead me ethically). How can the poem be used reflexively to think through the relations of, say, fracking to itself, the poem?

Q: How can interplay of

a) radically dispersed consciousness
b) semiotic/lexical structures
c) lyric introspection and awkward passionateness
d) absurdity
e) interdependent co-arising with the nonhuman and nonlinguistic
f)  active engagement of history and lineage
g) good-faith attempts to respond to technopolitics
x) x-factor

get into the poem without hysterically over-burdening the weird, fragile, protean thing a poem is?

A: fall off the cliff. (See individual question below).

A: Read Angie Hume and Laura Mullen’s “Trash” issue of The Volta and see what all those smart people have to say.

SDS & CM: And lastly, how do you enact imagination on the page? (We’re thinking of Stevens & Creeley here, and the poem as an enactment of the mind.)

Frances Richard: Layout and negative page-space—lexical/visual analogues of silence, rest, being-at-a-loss, reverie, bodily experience—are important. And: Make things up! If you need a word or word-like device that isn’t to hand, mock it up on the spot. But this is another long essay, and I’ve already said so/too much. For now, otherwise, perhaps: See below on real fall from pretend cliff and abstaining from A.B.C. language.

On Specificity and Multitude: the “problem” of Occupy—

SDS & CM: The imagination of your work seems also to be deeply integrated with the idea of negative capability and to be driven by an ecological engagement with variance, diversity, juxtaposition, spontaneity and the many. This reach toward a multivalent consciousness—toward an “intense, unpredictable poetry” (Hillman) coupled with the inherent difficulty in trying to define “ecopoetics” — reminds us of the complaints issued against the Occupy Movement by the dominant media.

Brenda Hillman: Humans seem to love certainty. The marketing culture, the corporate culture—they really love certainty. Sometimes writers participate in this desire for certainty when they crave definitions and packaging for something like Occupy or for literary concepts. i am not bothered by the multivalent and chaotic conversations around a word like “ecopoetics”—nor am i bothered by the notion that it may cease to be a useful or an interesting term. The important thing is to have conversations around the terms—whether it is “ecopoetics” or “wilderness” or “environment” or the now-whipping boy, “nature.” Poor nature—such a rich word, with so many Greek and Roman roots and now everyone is mad at it. And here we are, fracking one kind of “nature” (the cruddy deep resistant shale-oil) with another—water mixed with x, y and z. 

SDS & CM: As the Occupy Movement grew and engaged a more diverse populace, the demands of the movement justly diversified in response. That said, Occupy was nailed by the media as having a “lack of focus”; it was criticized as a movement that did not know what it wanted. 

As Evelyn Reilly asks so astutely ask in her essay Environmental Dreamscapes and Ecopoetic Grief while pondering the multiple forms of definition the term ‘ecopoetics’ has been subjected to: “do these calls for ‘everything’ risk being ‘nothing’?”

Furthermore, do you think that Occupy changed the discourse on ecopoetics? And if so, how?  

Brenda Hillman: Lack of focus is my favorite flavor, so they came to the right place—ha ha! Occupy is essentially anti-capitalist but not exclusively so. Most of the activists i know blame toxic capitalism not only for the illness of humans but also for the death of species and the discourse of ecopoetics often harks back to anti-capitalist poetics movements like SF Renaissance poetry of Rexroth and so on.  i think ecopoetics—inclusive and formally inventive poetry redefining relationships to environments— was probably helped by the work of Occupy—since neither is a protected, packaged movement/concept-- and it helped with those poetic values i mentioned above: indefiniteness and uncertainty and openness. i’ll say something more irreverent here: Occupy was started by disillusionment and if it created more of it, that may be a good thing; there is no reason at all for people, especially young people, to believe in the unfair practices of the current economic system. The current economic system is insane, is not good for most people and is destroying the planet—so Occupy made the connections for sure. It’s not all disillusionment, however; there are many hopeful things that came out of Occupy— truckers and young people and homeless people and very far left people and libertarian people got out into the streets, collectively, because they were disgusted.  Many remained disgusted. We must not let up our activism even though the movement dissipated. The concepts did not dissipate and i believe the refusal-energy is alive.

Frances Richard: When Evelyn writes of “updated nature writing, ruined-landscape writing, over-earnest science-inflected writing, call to arms writing,” I feel self-recognition. I’m engaged in some ways with all these things. This makes me feel worried: is what I’m doing too neatly codified, signed on to a preexisting trend or shtick? It’s interesting, however, to observe myself turning recognition into discomfort so speedily, since I’ve spent many years writing poems that, it seemed, belonged to no school or discussion, that felt somewhat illegible even in the communities in which I take part. After all, it is in some ways wonderful to identify with a school or movement or bunch of people sharing vocabulary.

The hybrid forms, meditative premises, and urgent social/sensorial investments tending to show up in work that gets called “ecopoetic” make sense to me for multiple reasons, not least of which is that I think artists should endeavor to deal with their times. Through the portal of “eco-” these poetries attempt to grapple with geopolitical power; the material world of technology and its debris; information saturation and speed in the society of the spectacle; post-industrialism and post-colonialism; ideas of the fragmented, dispersed self hanging on from Romanticism; ideas of a fragmented, collaged and sampled culture hanging on from high Modernism. This is a lot. It’s the lot we’ve got in this generation. But I don’t think it’s “everything.” How could it be? Also, probably, art-making always risks being “nothing.” Certainly in capitalist-reality this is true, because art risks being capitalist-worthless.

Do you think that Occupy changed the discourse on ecopoetics? And if so, how?  

[Frances Richard]: About ecopoetics I don’t know specifically, and I don’t know more generally how or if Occupy will sustain/continue to reinvent itself long enough to…. help us again politically, let alone poetically. Eirik Steinhoff’s A Fiery Flying Roule and the People’s Library at Liberty Plaza gladden(ed) me in that the powers I experience in poetry seem(ed) to be spreading a little, sharing themselves with people who might not normally turn to poetry as a wellspring. The huge demonstrations I was in in NYC were the most intense and…. (real)…. that I’ve ever experienced, bold and fearsome, joyous, not kidding. But then the demonstrations and encampments stopped. But then what Occupy Sandy did in NYC last fall was incredible and beautiful. I hear of amazing activism in Detroit. More power to the Rolling Jubilee. My undergrads in art school have been (a little bit) radicalized. So: uncertain verb tenses and parentheticals…


Individual Questions—

Question for Brenda Hillman

Sheila Davies Sumner: Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire (Wesleyan, 2013), your new book of poems, and last in a tetrology, seems like a sentient blueprint of that element. Everything of fire belongs––its colors & light, combustions & heat, and flash-points of volatility. A conflagration can happen within a single poem; a subterranean burning might spread across several poems; domesticated fire becomes urban or planetary or galactical, and also resides within the “alchemist’s bowl” where “reality burns at different rates.” In nearly unrepeatable patterns of diction, syntax, and punctuation, the movement of your linguistic flame is unique and durable and precise in the way it mirrors fire. Under this heat, the psychic life inside of words seems to pop open and letters scatter everywhere, germinating like jack pine cones (Pinus banksiana ) –– again making an "intense unpredictable poetry" (the other part of imaginative activism). In the poem, “When the Occupations Have Just Begun”, a more humid affinity with heat comes up –– “obdurate cliffs drop into the sea / as tears pour from your heart’s / intricate oddity.” Crying moistens the fire, adds an “extra kindling” of heartburn. There’s a chemistry of risk here that reminds us of something else you’ve said: "One of the things ecopoetics tries to do is reconfigure the poem so as to include some of the endangered forms of thought." Would you talk about how the practice of animating and reanimating letters might relate to this? Are words, as constituents of thought, also endangered because of dead meanings or overuse?
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Brenda Hillman: First of all, thank you for your readership and for those wonderful remarks. Like much of my other work, this book came out of a twinning of defiance and love—especially the love i feel for existence, for life on earth, for all of the invisible realms, and for a dream nature (pun intended) that will keep the soul alive in time of war and economic struggle. i am not sure where the physical features of the flaming letters came from except, i think, from some of the more gnostic elements of the Judaic and Christian traditions. It felt good to work with fire as it was inner, outer and very flexible. In general, i want to carry archaic traditions forward in time and to keep modernist and postmodernist practices very versatile with ancient myth as well, with an emphasis on different kinds of material including the invisible realms.  i am very fond of this idea of letters crossing the realms in Walter Benjamin and wanted to bring a liveliness to that. The main thing i hoped to do in this book was to present to its readers the idea that there is no limit to reality and that all realities can coexist. i have always believed this, and it has always cheered me up. It makes me happy if a little of this sense comes through in my poems.


Question for Frances Richard

Sheila Davies Sumner: Your poems are shaped with "aural shadows". In The Phonemes (Les Figues Press, 2012), there's a sort of drizzling of typographic sound designs throughout the book that works to subdue harshness while also amplifying conflict and bringing a restorative lexical delight. Anarch. (Futurepoem, 2012) is also rich in sound-sense and cognizance. You disperse the I/subject throughout texts, in a kind of hide-and-seek poetics. There are structured associations written into these "speed of dark" poems which track shifting images and reveal their accumulative thought processes. In “Blush Alarm”: “People experience memories in a brain / uninvented by movies”; and “blown like flowers / The dove going backward / Erasure takes a while / Put my tongue to taste the grain of darkness / coming forward”. Syntax breakage and juxtaposition are going on everywhere, at breathtaking speed, and seem to be foundational in both of these books. In this vein, what happens to developing emotional states that often need to slowly coalesce through continuity –– how much interruption can they withstand (before a tipping point is reached)? We’ve noticed your ability to work with the edge –– to exert a fine control in seemingly chaotic environments. In the poem “Universally Accepted Definition”, you write of the “instinct-injured”, and describe a visual fusion –– “from Chinese-painting fog, egg-yolk sun sets / into ashen clouds––I know according / to this cliff.” How do you navigate the cliff, the brink, without going over or into it?  In this context, we think of the ego as humanity’s psychic instinct for survival; not ego as an immense and central sun, but as one small star –– possibly the north star –– among many. How does your north star locate you?  What is the responsibility of the word to feeling? 
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Frances Richard: I like these descriptions: “typographic drizzling” (synaesthetic in haptic as well as aural terms)... “restorative lexical delight” (the fantasy that writing and reading can repair damage at cellular and/or geopolitical levels is outrageous, grandiose, pathetic and at the same time, we’ve all had our emotions, politics, epistemologies transformed by reading. (See Occupy question.) Plus of course the sheer pleasure of reading when it soaks into your body... “hide-and-seek poetics” (meaning and representation as hide-and-seek or fort/da games)… “breakage as foundational” (from mitosis to cutting the umbilical cord to Adamic fall to Lacanian mirror stage to the rhetoric of revolution to how a foundation is in fact built, by first breaking ground.)

what happens to developing emotional states that often need to slowly coalesce through continuity –– how much interruption can they withstand (before a tipping point is reached)? How do you navigate the cliff, the brink, without going over or into it?

Great question. For me this is a political/ethical as well as an emotional/psychological issue. How is coherent meaning possible if all parameters are constantly in wild quantum flux? Without baseline significance and identity that track over time and can be relied on as given, the individual tips into aphasia or psychosis; without some basis for shared belief or accepted premises, no instrumental communication—hence no organization (“movement”) between people is possible; without terms in which to name, relate, and differentiate, no discernment or judgment can be made, no stance taken. On the other hand, fixed, unnuanced beliefs and uninterrupted assumptions are usually a nightmare. There is no immutable line between the radically, psychotically dispersed and the adamantly, fascistically hard. How much interruption is the right amount? If we knew, wouldn’t we also know how to make brilliant art; wise, compassionate, happy people; just and effective societies; totally perspicacious judgments? As it is, you (I) just fail all the time. Find the line by tripping over it, fall off the cliff constantly. You navigate the cliff by going over it and surviving.

(In Are You My Mother?, Alison Bechdel paraphrases Winnicott’s object-relations theory: “The subject must destroy the object, and the object must survive that destruction.” The cliff is intersubjective paradox. You are yourself, not somebody else; but know that only by being in relation to others. Including relation to the nonhuman—creaturely, geological, chemical, topographical, meteorological, technological, etc. Or you navigate by creeping to the edge of the abyss on your belly, peeking over, and wriggling away. Like the scene in Lear where Edgar, as Poor Tom, leads blinded Gloucester up to an imaginary cliff so he can commit notional suicide and re-feel the value of being alive. Each element in this scene is compromised, untrustworthy—Edgar disguised, Gloucester impaired, cliff pretend. But the despair is real and so, therefore, is the retrieval from despair.)

In this context, we think of the ego as humanity’s psychic instinct for survival; not ego as an immense and central sun, but as one small star –– possibly the north star –– among many. How does your north star locate you? 

You are, I think, getting at what I’m trying to articulate above about small ego as failure-prone. The absurd in-between self, as opposed to armor-plated immense and central sun. Less a North Star in all the purity and heroic road-to-freedom that implies, and more the compass needle, jittering and yawing off course; not a natural, extra-cultural entity but a piece of a built device; yet still magnetized to something elementally bigger than itself (which would be… what? The minerals embedded in the intersubjective or cooperatively eroded cliff… i.e. small ego navigates via the experience of losing and re-finding itself in the struggle to exchange meaning productively with other egos who are also chronically getting lost or acting compromised—and/or with nonhuman living things and forces that require us to be in relation but don’t exist for us or speak our language.)

In a poem, at least, I locate myself musically/sonically, and by how the lines look on the page and sit in white space, and by a balance between direct, discursive statement and vocabulary and syntax (and image) under pressure of estrangement.   

What is the responsibility of the word to feeling?

I don’t know, but that isn’t a good answer. What system of ethics or powers determines this responsibility? To what extent are feelings in fact separable from words or words from feelings, since both exist as brain-functions? None of us grappling with this question on this blog are pre-verbal infants; we’re all in the realm of language, and we don’t know what our feelings would be like if language were stripped out of us. At the bottom of this distinction is the chimera of mind/body split.

But obviously word and feeling are not identical either; feelings resist articulation all the time; ecstatic experience is defined partly by being inimical to description, and so is traumatic experience. A certain kind of writer would say (I project), “the responsibility is not to lie.” And that would sound (to me) infuriating—as though one could judge confidently which utterances—and intentionally artificed aesthetic utterances at that—measure up to some inner state of feeling that is itself solid and stable enough to be gauged by an officially ratified (by whom?) ruler. (See Duchamp, Three Standard Stoppages. Wittgenstein also talks about a ruler “made of very soft rubber.”) What would such an inner life be like? At the same time, There is a responsibility not to lie, if that means not to use flaccid, unconsidered language, language serving unexamined, coercive power-relations or flattened out by corporate-nationalistic fondling, language that plumps up narcissistic, passive-consumerist ideas of self and denies fear, confusion, rapture, rupture, selflessness, contradiction, hunger, nonsense. I remember, from grade-school, the gross-out category of A.B.C. gum—“already been chewed.” In my notes-to-self lexicon, there is a category of irresponsible language as A.B.C.—a warmish, gray lump spit into your mouth from somewhere else along the line, used up, all sweetness and freshness chewed out by advertising, by the hopelessness of neoliberal political discourse, by emotional ignorance and bad attention. Poet’s responsibility is not to valorize pre-chewed feelings given shape in pre-chewed language.

(Flaw in this metaphor is that the flavor of gum is essential-oil-of-advertising to begin with.
This points, perhaps, toward Conceptualist poetics and what Kenny Goldsmith calls “uncreative writing,” admitting that in our language, and therefore in our articulable feeling, we’re constantly already interpellated by hypercapital, and so the task of the writer is to mouth the gum for all to see in its shocking-pink/blue-raspberry relentlessness-banality-toxicity-comedy-bubbliciousness. I have a lot of sympathy with this work. But it isn’t work I know how to make, because, a) it also seems to me to flirt with another, inverted purity or absoluteness, and b) I’m interested in the synaptic, libidinal, irrational, inconsistent elements of language, what Kristeva calls the semiotic, that hum inside and under symbolic language. The rhythm, including the ache, of the chewing jaw, or the pattern of chemoreceptors firing in the taste buds, or how the pink dye breaks down into molecules, and those molecules are part of your body now.)



Bios


Brenda Hillman has published chapbooks with Penumbra Press, a+bend press, and EmPress; she is the author of nine full-length collections from Wesleyan University Press, the most recent of which are Practical Water (2009) and Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire (2013). With Patricia Dienstfrey, she edited The Grand PermissionNew Writings on Poetics and Motherhood (Wesleyan, 2003).  Hillman teaches at St. Mary’s College of California where she is the Olivia C. Filippi Professor of Poetry; she is an activist for social and environmental justice and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. http://www.blueflowerarts.com/brenda-hillman.


Frances Richard is the author of Anarch. (Futurepoem, 2012), The Phonemes (Les Figues Press, 2012) and See Through (Four Way Books, 2003), as well as the chapbooks Shaved Code (Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs, 2008) and Anarch. (Woodland Editions, 2008). She writes frequently about contemporary art and is co-author, with Jeffrey Kastner and Sina Najafi, of Odd Lots: Revisiting Gordon Matta-Clark’s “Fake Estates” (Cabinet Books, 2005). She has been a visiting scholar at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, and is the recipient of a Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant and a research grant from the Graham Foundation. Currently she teaches at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco.

Sheila Davies Sumner has an M.F.A. in Poetry from St. Mary’s College of California. She has also written short stories which appeared in Rampike, Alcatraz 3, and in the graphic-story magazine, one of one, published by Burning Books. In addition, she has written and produced radio dramas, commissioned by New American Radio, including What is the Matter in Amy Glennon, which was nominated for the International Prix Futura Award. She is the Staff Writer for the Studio One Reading Series.

Casey McAlduff is the curator of the Studio One Reading Series.