Monday, March 24, 2014

On Writing #25 : Kate Cayley

An Effort of Attention
Kate Cayley

My greatest fear in writing poetry is that it will stop.

My other fear is that I have no idea what “it” is.

As soon as I began to be serious about writing poetry, meaning that it was more than a flurry of narcissistic excitement, writing it became tentative, apologetic. Who isn’t a little apologetic about writing poetry, really? It’s such an odd thing to do—a process of elimination. It’s not a story, or a song, or an essay, or a reflection, or a memoir, or a piece of reportage, but it contains elements of all those things—what remains behind when the trappings are removed.

It is a compression of thought and music into a very small, very modest space. So small, it’s always on the verge of disappearing. What are you even in pursuit of? A recognizable “I”? But the “I” of the poet is a fiction—a voice that is too precise, too conscious of itself, to be anything other than a heartfelt construction. I am not interested in I, not for writing purposes. It doesn’t feel tangible. It’s as elusive as the world, or more so.

As a poet, I need a subject—a large one, a far-removed one—art forgery, photography, Emily Dickinson, the history of flight. But I wonder if this is a form of obfuscation, of avoidance. Here is my subject. See how interesting it is. It neatly sidesteps the bigger question of what it is. There’s so much colour. You won’t notice the scaffolding sags, the foundation is leaking.

Auden, who I read a lot, said repeatedly (he was a crank, like me) to different people that, if there was any point at all in teaching poetry, which there wasn’t, he would teach only technical mastery. And I agree, except I can’t, because the technique of poetry has never yielded much to me, unless those rules move in my blood without my knowing it, as instinctive rhythm, but that is a tall order, very unlikely as well as romantic/Romantic. I think we live in a period of dissolution, of scattering, so it must be inhabited, as a poet. There isn’t really a choice. Just try to inhabit it as unaffectedly as possible. Which is tricky.

Poetry is borrowed time. Bartered awkwardly or gracefully from other work, children, partners, failures of noticing, failures of discipline, failure. Maybe that’s what it is? An awareness of the way time is borrowed—all of it? Maybe. Maybe if I got nearer to knowing what poetry is, I could stop being afraid that it would stop. Because writing it seems so lucky, so fortuitous, surely that can’t continue? I know I’ve been lucky, I’ve gotten a lot of undeserved blessings in my life thus far—but that lucky?

Or maybe if I figured out what it is, it would stop: it’s the tension of the unexplainable.

Simone Weil wrote “no true effort of attention is ever wasted.” I like this very much—that attention is an effort, a striving, and also that it carries something, holds something essential, even when that thing is not obvious and may never be obvious. That it, and we, are not wasted. Maybe poetry is evidence of the effort of attention that is not wasted. That’s probably enough.

Kate Cayley is a poet, playwright and fiction writer. Her first collection of poetry, When This World Comes to an End, published in 2013 by Brick Books, was named one of the season’s best collections by The Globe and Mail. She is a playwright in residence at Tarragon Theatre, and her play, After Akhmatova, was produced there in 2011. She is the artistic director of Stranger Theatre, and has co-created,directed and written eight plays with the company. She has also written a young adult novel, The Hangman in the Mirror (Annick Press), which won the Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction. Her poems and short stories have appeared in literary magazines across the country, and her first collection of short fiction, How You Were Born, will be published in September. She lives in Toronto with her partner and their two children.

Friday, March 14, 2014

On Writing #24 : Gregory Betts

On Writing
Gregory Betts

I like the messy body; not interested in only clean; the illusion of perfection. Mistakes embody the process of bodies. We slop, we spill, we tumble – and through an arduous process, we enable small moments of grace. The kind of poetry that I’m interested in – avant/conceptual/experimental/&etc art and poetry – is filled with attempts to highlight the importance of process – by which is often meant an acceptance of the mistake.

Kenny Goldsmith, who runs, in his book Soliloquy includes in the transcript a conversation where he reveals that he really doesn’t understand who Pere Ubu is or what he’s about. What astonishing generosity, honesty to include such a moment without editing it out. Ubu was a shithead, a guy lost in his own illusions. Was Goldsmith enacting Ubu by including his mistake, becoming late 20th century’s ubu roi, or offering a wink to the observant? It’s that kind of elegance that I’m interested in with mistakes – where you reveal inverted, potential truths through errors, something perhaps inadvertently beautiful; discovering new terrain through mistakes.

Found poetry, appropriative writing, plunderverse, &etc, is laden with the rare mixture of innocent text with insight. Such unintentional poetry is, in fact, essential to teaching and to learning, but making mistakes is only a preliminary step in the process. There’s a reason the army of teachers out there spend so much time carefully correcting the mistakes in every essay, even when they know that many of the students will never even glance at those comments. We do it because error is at the heart of our enterprise, the moment’s chance to change the course of things to come: the inverted potential of the real lives of our students. But we should not be afraid of or disgusted by those errors – we have to attend to them, think about them more productively, exhaustively. Personally, I harvest them, revel in their spectacular vistas.

In This is Importance, I wanted to highlight the importance of the error –– not only because they are hilarious, but because they offer a glimpse into the process of teaching and learning, alongside rare glimpses of inadvertent beauty in student writing. In my classroom, in my poetry, I focus on the mistakes because I cherish the painful process of learning. My favourite mistakes are the ones that strive towards something lofty and often clich├ęd only to inadvertently arrive at a much more convincing insight. I don’t mean the ones where the language has no clue what it is revealing, and sit empty vestibules of incoherent letters. Those aren’t particularly interesting to me. I mean, the ones where the particular wording creates another possible truth that resonates. From that book: “Poetic form is how you tell a poem from nothing”.

A poetry from such mistakes is, to misparaphrase Robert Duncan, like a drug-addled addict suddenly happy and grandiose with a gladness to private meaningless pleasures, to profundities because they were depths, to ecstasies because they were heights—mere dimensions. A poet on writing.

Gregory Betts lives in St. Catharines, Ontario. His most recent books include This is Importance (Wolsak & Wynn 2013), a book of student errors on Canadian literature, and Avant Garde Canadian Literature: The Early Manifestations (UTP 2013). His next book is Boycott, forthcoming from Make Now Press.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Recent Reads: Hugh Thomas and N.W. Lea

Albanian Suite by Hugh Thomas
Present! by N.W. Lea

Published by above/ground press, 2014.

Translators typically have an agenda when they choose their work. Whether the translation aims to remedy an incomplete version or present literature to a new population, the perceived gesture often determines the public’s approach. But Hugh Thomas’ treatment of poems by Visar Zhiti and a few others not only operates without that explicit gesture, it confesses to not knowing Albanian! Exploring the grey area of translation, Albanian Suite is as much a study in intuition as it is a doorway to improvisation.

Thomas’ key to informal translation involves responding to words as they appear on the page. (My efforts to do the same, focusing on poems Zhiti has had reproduced online, were unproductive.)  However the means of his methodology, it’s clear that Thomas’ poetic guide was at least accompanied by an experienced, geographical one. Signposts of a summer’s escape in Europe colour the culture-rich but cash-poor “Music I heard with you” and the title suite. But broadly speaking, Albanian Suite exists in an overcrowded nexus between languages – so again, Europe – and finds a couple decoding their way through the Mediterranean.


The two sicknesses frequent in this epoch are heat and isolation.
There are boxes of hotels. We are a collection.
Closet doors, gelatine reductions. Reapparition and sale of automobiles.
Miracles are also part of the equipment.
Painting, recovering, becoming impermeable.
The water is in your family.
Him vs. it: although they dream equally, they do not speak the same
To become free as a fish, enter the universal museum.
Dolphin madrigal, closed water. The subway is culture.
Eat your ticket. Your future is our compromise.
Language is a door. At the door we watch you turning out the lights.

Thomas’ lines are direct and unaccommodating, as if under foreign constraints, yet the linguistics at play resound beyond a surface level of political boundaries. The musicality of the “dolphin madrigal”, like the tokens and tradition that exude a hectic wedding day rhythm in “Epithalamion”, flex the non-verbal ways we navigate space (or lack thereof). Thomas offsets the narrowing effects of language’s deductions as an explorer in “The Strange Mine of Pork Poetry”:

I don’t worry about the garden path, which is different for every letter,
because every letter carries a different experience to the poem. The poem
turns somersaults along the path despite the tower of texts piled atop one
another to deter diversions.

This excerpt, the third of five prose-poem stanzas, also sheds light on Thomas’ attitude toward loose translations, waking up dormant avenues inside each letter. Although unable to find an online bio that lists the languages the author is fluent in, I reckon Thomas does know some Italian (which, as part of my in-house research, has been suggested as a useful tool for cracking Albanian) and perhaps some Swedish. These skills would explain the relative spaciousness of “Clear” (from Italian poet Giuseppe Ungaretti) and “Stars” (by Finnish poet Edith Sodergran), one-off translations that glimmer on the outskirts of Thomas’ jam-packed verse. It’s unclear whether Thomas took more or less creative license with these poems but, alongside one of his loose translations, the morning song “Early”, they’re the poems I find most liberating.

There’s a good deal of improvisation throughout Albanian Suite, as Zhiti’s influence maneuvers traditional stanzas, free verse, a ten-part sequential and a mock review, among others. The latter, entitled “Review”, reads like cut-up words of a poetry review reassembled in scattered order. It may very well be that simple, another angle of translation that excites with the glimpse of something new. From my experience, the degree to which these poems leave their mark is also varied, which is to say the impact of Thomas’ intuition will largely depend on the dexterity of the reader’s. Confusion is a latent component to excitement and certainly part of this translator’s curious agenda.

N.W. Lea’s new chapbook Present! forgoes the responsive processes that layer Albanian Suite, instead centering on small admissions of awareness. Assembled as twenty individually numbered trinkets, these new poems rouse us awake in the midst of minutia: a plain observation, the unspoken portion of a conversation, some inexplicable act or faraway memory. The who, where and why’s couldn’t make it. In fact, those omissions form the connective tissue for each tangent – omissions that put the onus on Lea’s delicate craftsmanship.

Several of these offerings expire within ten words, so it’s telling that Present! digs so much aplomb out of its sparseness. Take the otherwise untitled “9.”:

the doughy flute music
the classical hand
the budding edifices
the braggart

This bite-sized portrayal helps to populate Present!’s rather domesticated neighbourhood but also shows Lea’s mastery of honing in on the small scale. 


this forest is reckless
with odour

I am on the inside
of an outrageous calm

tiny respite
from the terror

of the temporary

At once skeletal and fully formed, “5.” is an opportunity to revel in ambiguity. The forest, odour, calm and terror each have their proximity to “an outrageous calm” but even that imagery remains elusive. Lea’s disciplined sieve permits only mood and tone to have a fixed presence and it lingers like the afterglow of a good Haiku.

Present! collects unassuming but cleverly managed observations refined over time and, as such, rewards a casual read. Digested over a longer period, however, these poems and their gaps, like communal patches of lawn between houses that neither neighbour can fully enjoy, hang together like a tapestry, all the more memorable for the ways it feels unfinished.

Monday, March 03, 2014

On Writing #23 : Hailey Higdon

Hiding Places
Hailey Higdon

Sometimes I prize being liked over my writing. It feels like everyone I know is doing something in New York. Fuck New York. I’ve never liked it there. Well, that’s not completely true. When I was in eighth grade our class raised enough money to take a trip to New York. I was obsessed with musicals, and New York was the place to go. We chartered a bus, me and all thirty-something of my thirteen-year-old classmates, and headed up through the Appalachians.

It was a fifteen-hour drive, and I barfed nineteen times in the tiny bus bathroom. In case you have a case of the fuzzy math, that’s about every forty-five minutes. Apparently, I was the only thirteen-year-old with vicious motion sickness. That motion sickness followed me around until I was about nineteen, and it was just as vicious until it finally  took off, and I started moving around.

Still—fuck New York. Fuck it.

I can’t say too many curse words on the internet because I do have a day job that involves working with two-year-olds. Wouldn’t be right for them to grow up and find out I use all sorts of language. It’s like me growing up and realizing jazz is a real thing, which completely cemented my fidelity to the experiment.

I have been having these daydreams about moving back to North Carolina—where I lived over the summer and was able to get brief glimpses of the fuzzy mountains looking all blue on the horizon. Blue, blue, beautiful North Carolina.

Right now, I live in Snohomish, Washington. Yes, that’s right. It’s pronounced sno-HOH-mish. It’s full of perfect little colorful houses and antique stores. The colorful house I live in is surrounded by wild overgrowth—gardens and pretty lights and gargoyles and moss and some fences, and it is up high on a hill so I can look out at the town below and out at the mountains. The ground is always wet, always stuck with fuzzy and tender bright green moss. I bet the word moss was invented here. I remember my brother had a He-Man action figure named Mossman, and he really smelled like forests and moss, and when I see this moss here it’s like I can smell him—like sage and lemon mixed up in bright freshly cut grass.

I’ve lived other places with mountains too. Vermont for one, where the moon overhead just stares at you with the green green mountains circling it. Like you’re swimming in the moon’s own fishbowl.

Montana, where winter’s snowy and you wander around in the white, looking for landmarks, where occasionally the clouds break up and behind them is a peak of a mountain somewhere close to Canada.

I attempted to write a novel for the third time when living in Madison, Wisconsin. There isn’t a mountain in Madison, but there is water everywhere. Two big lakes straddle the strip of land that hosts the town.

I loved it. I loved to walk by the water. My first day there I sat by the water reading all afternoon, and when I got up to walk home I put my hand down right on my glasses and had to walk home in the this new town in near blindness. I lived with twenty-six other folks in a huge housing coop and there were folks there, immediately there, when I returned home ready to commiserate with me—I smashed my glasses! 2003 couldn’t get any worse! And it felt that way—my grandmother had died, a friend had tried to kill herself, I had been cursed with food poisoning that put me in the hospital, and I had broken up with my boyfriend at the time—a really nice boy, but we just couldn’t make it work. The year felt like a failure.

Then it was over, and I lived in this great town, Madison, and I started studying African languages, and I had twenty-six new friends, and I started working at his hat store where we could sneak around in the middle of the night and have a beer in the quiet and try on hats. And I tried on hat after hat after hat that year.

Then I travelled to South Africa where I met my good friend Tyler. And moving around there—my usually adroit roaming—wasn’t as easy. I ended up travelling alone, trying to escape a sangoma who had put a curse on me. I ran off to the ocean and cut off all my hair and tried to hide out by the beach for a few days until I broke down and called Tyler and asked for help. He responded by taking a taxi across the country, and he ended up on the doorstep of the little house I was staying in around midnight that night saying, “From now on, Hailey, you’re travelling with me.” So we moved on; we went to Lesotho and buried ourselves in the mountains and rode ponies.

I’m starting to think it was then I knew that I couldn’t bury myself in these places—any places—securely. You can’t hide out anywhere for long. Little clusters of landscapes can only pepper your novels and poems for so long until some truth must come out. But people like landscapes, even city ones, and I do too. I’m writing my fourth unfinished novel and poems (always poems) in Sno-HOH-mish where I have the ocean and the mountains at arms reach, and I use them, I rely on them to ground me to this place.

Truthfully I’d like to square off with the events—all the things I’ve done so far—not just the places, but it’s the places that have always kept me in a constant loop with language. It’s the places, the landscapes that have kept me writing. All the places I’ve ever lived have always crept up around me and offered me some new forestry to hide out in. The words of places, they fill in, they bury me a little and it’s comforting to be buried. Anyhow, cuss words can’t hide from two-year-olds anywhere, in any town, thanks to the internet.

But the future is shaking off its forests. The mossy landscapes are still here (pointing to my heart and my head and then all around me), a big part of me here, only I’m not letting them get quite as overgrown. I want to see what’s happening in them too. So, from now on, no more blind commitment to the popular fiasco of writing to the landscapes. No more hiding places. I value my time in the sun and the sun is everywhere, even in my mossy new home. Where writing happens. Where poems are at my fingertips. Anything can be said. Like anywhere, where everything happens.

Hailey Higdon is from Nashville. She is the author of the chapbooks The State in Which (above/ground, 2013), Packing (Bloof, 2012), and How to Grow Almost Everything (Agnes Fox, 2011), as well as the book blog The Palinode Project. She occasionally makes tiny chapbooks for What To Us Press. She currently lives and works in Snohomish County, Washington. She has called many places home.