Monday, June 30, 2014

On Writing #33 : Marthe Reed

Drawing Louisiana
Marthe Reed

Sitting with the IPad, tracing the outlines of the Louisiana coastline I am flooded with frustration and desire: I want this coastline. That is, I want to place the coastline into the text of the poem, into the public discourse, I want to put it in sight. Because it is largely invisible and vanishing.

I pick up the stylus and trace the tiny islets of the birdfoot delta, the endless cuts through the marsh made by fishing fleets, shrimpers, oil and gas drilling operations, pleasure boaters and anglers: the fragmented coast is fractal in its complexity. This is what it looked like in 2000.

You can see where we are from where we’ve come: this is the birdfoot delta in 1937.

My tracing task would have been quite a bit easier if I had started well before I was born. Though the destruction had already begun with the building up of levees that prevented flooding, prevented the silting up of the coast, prevented the land from remaking itself in the face of tides, currents, hurricanes, human traffic, and the natural compression of the soil.

From 1932 to 2000, Louisiana lost 1,900 square miles of land, or the state of Delaware. Of course, we think, Delaware is tiny in the scope of the continent. And it is. So is the island of Manhattan, which is equal in scope the amount of land lost every year from Louisiana’s coast. So, what if Delaware just disappeared, or Manhattan?

The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority has sought to sue the oil and gas companies that have been the agents of so much of the land loss, having cut 10,000 miles of canals and pipelines through Louisiana’s coastal lands. Though of course Bobby Jindal is fighting tooth and nail to protect the interests of the oil and gas companies, patrons of his political ambitions.

Is it possible to bring urgency to the back page news item, the flickering story on the nightly news?

It is hot here in Syracuse, mid-summer, and I’ve just moved from Louisiana where this project has its origin. Fans blowing, windows open, I move the stylus ceaselessly over the touchscreen, shifting view as I complete a section. It takes most of the week to complete the tracing, then go back to enlarge the view and smooth out what I’ve done, before finally uploading it to the computer.  —Then what?

Documentary poetics affords me a way into a poetic project from which I have a complicated distance. Though I lived in Louisiana for eleven years and came to love this landscape in all its mutability, I am no native. Indeed, my politics, my atheism, my ethics with respect to community and the ecosystems I am indebted to are marginal ones in Louisiana. I sometimes feel the people of this state are loving the land to death. And they do love it. Hunting and fishing are central activities of the culture, even as fishing is also central to the economy of the state. Louisianans can’t wait to get out on the water, out to the coast, or the deer lease, or the fishing camp.

Fox news gets a lot of play in Louisiana to no good effect. People are fearful: jobs jobs jobs is the mantra, and I get that. People need livelihoods. But the preservation of the status quo in the local economy—mainly extractive, as well as chemical refining and production, commercial fishing, and tourism—is dependent upon industries that are forces of terrible injury to the coastline and the human environment, to say nothing of all the other-than-humans we are intricately bound up with. And this is true across the planet, notably in that great middle section of the United States, producing soy beans, corn, cattle, pigs, and chickens, factory farms spewing out “product,” tainted product at that, for our consumption along with a toxic stew of waste, which then makes its way into the Mississippi.

The Mississippi River has built its sprawling delta again and again, shifting from site to site as the silt it once freely spilled over the coast built up the land around it and forced the river elsewhere. If we abandoned the levees along its banks, the river would flow through the Atchafalaya Basin and begin again further west from where its present outlet south of New Orleans lies. The Mississippi River drains the entire middle part of the United States, lying between the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachians. Everything we put down the sink, the toilet, every drug we ingest, all the pesticides and fertilizers we put into the garden or onto crops, the antibiotics that go into the feed of the animals we raise for slaughter, their manure, it all ends in the Gulf.

Anger doesn’t help, especially an outsider’s anger. Who am I to judge? I, too, drive a car, heat my house in winter, cool my house in summer. Affluent, I buy into an organic CSA, drive a hybrid, recycle, pat myself on the back, knowing, even so, I as fully complicit in the causes and consequences as any other consumer.

Louisiana is beautiful—its coast a startling, fertile realm of bottomland forests ceding ground to prairie, to marsh, to la prairie tremblant, flotant marsh in which the tall rushes and grass make the wet appear solid at first glance—and it is vanishing. Its children poorly educated, it poor barely noticed let alone supported toward productive, healthy lives. The coast erodes, and chemical companies pour their refuse accidentally and illicitly into the water supply. Texas Brine has created a sinkhole on Bayou Corne so large it has swallowed a community and is still growing. The folks whose homes fall within the “safety zone” of the innumerable chemical plants hope for the best, expect nothing good. The community of Reveilleville had to be relocated and its buildings demolished after a vinyl chloride accident in the 1980’s. In the 1990’s the Mossville community, suffering unprecedented disease, the groundwater even now still threatened by liquid toxic leachate, and the area imperiled by contaminated fish, vegetables, and fruit, fought for and finally received relocation away from the PVC plants surrounding it. In 2003 yet another toxic plume of vinyl chloride forced the relocation of a community near Plaquemine, a crisis discovered when miscarriages there become epidemic.[1]  —The narrative quickly becomes numbing.

Documentary poetics allows me, an outsider, to write my way into this beautiful, vanishing world without anger, without falling prey to the temptation to preach. Documentary poetics allows grief into the poem without bathos or sentimentality or feigned authority. Sometimes, a picture is worth a thousand words.[2]


[2] This piece first appeared in The Volta “Trash” Issue, Fall 2013.

Marthe Reed is the author of four books: Pleth, a collaboration with j hastain (Unlikely Books 2013), (em)bodied bliss (Moria Books 2013), Gaze (Black Radish Books 2010) and Tender Box, A Wunderkammer  (Lavender Ink 2007). A fifth book of poems will be published by Lavender Ink (2014). She has also published six chapbooks (Dusie Kollektiv, above / ground press, and Shirt Pocket Press). Her collaborative chapbook thrown, text by j hastain with Reed's collages, won the 2013 Smoking Glue Gun contest and will appear in 2014. An essay on Claudia Rankine’s The Provenance of Beauty: A South Bronx Travelogue appears in American Letters and Commentary.  She is Co-Publisher of Black Radish Books.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

On Writing #32 : Chris Turnbull

Half flings, stridence, and visual timber
Chris Turnbull

I listened to Viggo Mortensen all day not so long ago, his poetry, accompanied with Buckethead’s music, a wry, often intense, aural presence to other writing I was doing. The day had all sorts of distractions – movement in the house, other things that had to be done, the etceteras of the daily. It also rained all day that day, pitched also, as an ambient sound, was liquid dripping into the basement cistern. At times I appreciated the slow visual pleasure of melting snow pooling along the street and twisting into the drainholes. I enjoyed the rush of wind and water. There are frequencies I attune myself to, others I try to avoid, but typically, sound backgrounds to visual experiences; I have never really thought too much about the impact of sound on my writing, though I know sound is constant.

By evening of that day, the street outside looked wet in the dark. I’d seen the guys changing the streetlight bulbs a day earlier; the streetlights have a softer glow. I was on my way to the coffee shop down the street to listen to music. I’d heard separate members of the local group play on other occasions, but not as a group.  And there was a singer from Montreal in town who I’d heard was good. As I went out the door, I felt I was stacking my day with sound experiences, putting them to the forefront, so to speak. I was looking forward to the outing; this particular coffee shop is a go-to spot; its shape seemed ideal for a good acoustic performance, and I knew I’d see folks I know and enjoy hanging out with. Uncharacteristically, I’d been in all day – it’s a rare rainy day that I don’t spend part of it walking or hiking outside.

I was not mistaken about the enjoying the evening. I was mistaken about the streets being wet. I noticed what was missing visually, but didn’t note consciously the absence of the sound of water. I noticed the street was reflective; the water had become polished black ice; the pools of water had drained hours ago. The street was slick. I minced my way to the coffee shop, tentative when I would have moved at a fairly quick pace, hands out for balance, aware of how the body will fail you and also support you if you fall– the proof of this my casted left wrist-- my wrist had probably saved my back and my legs when I was striding confidently over unnoticed black ice. I heard the snap of my wrist before I really registered that I’d fallen. When I stood up my eyes hurt with small pink and white dots – and there was no sound. This was temporary.

The coffee shop is long and narrow; block glass next to the back door; a broad window at the front with a windowsill that hosts plants; an ‘old’ cash register in the corner. Walls brick. The front window had a curtain over it; the evening was videotaped. The tables were full; I took a seat at the bar with my notebook. There was some writing I wanted to finish; background sound I have always been able to tune out, or tune into. I watched the musicians play, the movements of the bow on the violin, the characteristic expressions of intensity and joy on the faces of the performers, the measured breaths and movements of feet, hands, and body. I registered the sound of the music, the transitions of the jig, and if I applied some effort, could focus on notes of one instrument as opposed to the whole.

Not too long ago, my son was given a bell. It was his third bell; just before coming back from a road trip to Minas Basin, Nova Scotia two years ago, a friend gave him an immense Zen bell for the drive home. Would the sound change, my son asked, if we open the windows when we drive? Would others hear it, driving? I could barely put a couple of words together after being surrounded by the incessant ringing, sonorous as it had at first seemed. It is a 12 hour drive. His second bell was given in a spurt of nostalgia, I think, a bell that had been part of a home. It had sat at a front door, screwed tightly into the brick. This bell was enthusiastically rung many times until it vanished, as loud things sometimes do, in a house. The third large bell appeared near magically, as things do when other things vanish in a house – and one morning, certainly before the neighborhood gathered themselves to prepare for the day, and certainly before most kids were ready to go off to school, or daycare, the street was shattered open by the sound of the bell in the backyard and my son’s penetrating and exuberant voice bellowing: “CLUBHOUSE MEETING!!!” This was followed by about 20 vigorous shakes of the bell. I was wordless, although my neighbours were not similarly struck dumb.

It got me thinking about how the volume in this house has increased since my son’s birth, and how quiet it used to be here, and in this neighborhood. When I write, I write with ambient sounds -- creaks of the house, the whirr of the dryer, the chatter of birds outside, the rumble of wheels, and bellows of enthusiasm, as kids go to school or home in wagons, on foot, and on bikes. I write in my head, sort of mapping, when I’m outside, on a hike or just walking, taking note, attending– in all the ways that word is charged – to what is around me, including the sounds of movement – trees, leaves, birds, water, the sounds of response and echo, the sounds of pause. So I have an ear, or two, and the sounds get included, contribute to, visual experience. When someone reads their writing, I appreciate the how the voice, in its pauses, frequencies, and emphases, affects the way the sound of the words might illuminate something otherwise hidden.  But I rarely read my writing out loud when I’m writing it.

I am enjoying the music at the coffee shop. Folks are tapping their hands, feet, moving their bodies to the harmonies. The music changes from a Swedish ballad to a fast jig, and I am distracted from the words I’d started to jot down by a flash of blue. It’s a lone dancer with a blue hat; she’s up in front suddenly, lending movement to a room moving in subtle ways – and then everyone is clapping, her hands are over her head as she twirls, the sound is enthusiastic and so --- a young woman moves past me toward the back of the coffee shop. She has a guide, but I move to the side to give them both space.

The sound man sits alone – so how does he hear language, see the words…or does he feel them, reverberating, and adjust accordingly with buttons and dials, the microphone? The singer comments that two of her songs are similar in sound – it’s an obvious surprise – and it happens. I notice repetition sometimes when looking at different pieces of my own writing, and in the writing of others – as if the words had encountered each other before – even the blocking of words can be repetitive, as though something more concise formed before, and is still forming. Sometimes, if I notice it, I leave it, let the accident happen. Other times, being more deliberate, I disrupt things, change direction: sounds clash, words get sharp, edgy, until I don’t want to listen, or read it. There’s some discomfort. I try to do the same thing with how I place words, how they cluster, or vanish, or bump into each other acoustically, even when separated by their own visual formations.

Behind the stage is the bands’ banner. Ferns unfurling, textile and tactile. The kinetics of writing leaves behind, near reveals, the tactility of language—in rhythm, visual imprint and reverberation. Words intersect on the page and inform one another. The performer can take the words and enact them, sound them, give them movement.

I think in pictures and spaces and physical forms. I think in a kinetic way, too. I sentence sound to the back of my mind; I preference the visual and shaped/ly in writing but am coming to see that I’ve often been using sound to shape. I was talking with a friend, a sound/performance poet about a long piece I’ve been working on, and while we were chatting over the phone, he asked me if I had read it out to myself.  Pause. No, I said. It is a multi-voice piece, oddly enough, and meant to be performed by voices other than mine. The piece as a whole evolved as a voicing; it seemed the best way to get into the text in the writing of it, the best way to describe formulations, or reformulations, of memory and history, the best way to get at fluctuation and curvature. It is written deliberately; made up of discrete visual chunks which, when voiced, or depending on how they’re voiced, relate to one another in obvious and sometimes surprising ways. But they have form. They suggest. If words could be physical, tangible blocks that I could touch and move and push…I would move them into place with my fingers. And yet, I’m realizing that I’ve ventured into a sound landscape as a visual landscape in the writing. And I move through it – movement is important.

As I write this, I’m listening to Mortensen and Buckethead. My cast came off today; it was a hairline break of the radius; I imagine what that looks like without asking to see the X-ray. I walked home from the hospital, paying attention to the skidding clouds, that the birds are having a bit of trouble, half flung. I think the wind got in my ear because it’s humming.

Chris Turnbull lives in Kemptville, Ontario. In 2010, above/ground press published a chapbook of her visual and multi-performative piece, continua. Thuja Press published her chapbook Shingles in 2001. Her poetry has been published in The Volta, Ottawater, Convergences, How2, ditch, Dusie, Open Letter, Dandelion, and experiment-o (Angelhouse Press), among others. Occasionally, she has written poetry reviews and interviews. Her sometimes small press mag, rout/e, has more recently become an ongoing footpress project involving placing poems on trails, including pieces from Monty Reid, George Bowering, rob mclennan, derek beaulieu, Amanda Earl, Pearl Pirie, Angela Rawlings (, Steven Ward, and Jamie Reid.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Sarah Pinder & Antonino Mazza!

More info:
Join us for readings & conversation with

Sarah Pinder & Antonino Mazza!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Ottawa Art Gallery
Arts Court
2 Daly Ave.
Ottawa, Ont.

A hat will be passed.

ANTONINO MAZZA is the author of acclaimed translations of Eugenio Montale, The Bones of Cuttlefish (1983), and of Pier Paolo Pasolini, Poetry (1991). For the latter he was awarded the Italo Calvino Translation Prize from Columbia University (1992).  He has published two books of his own poetry, one of which, The Way I Remember It (1992), was first released as a recording (1988), choreographed by the Vancouver-based E.D.A.M. Dance Company and widely performed. For the same book published in Italian translation, La nostra casa รจ in un orecchio cosmico (Molteleone editore, 1998), he was the recipient of the 2001 Grotteria Prize. His reissue of The City Without Women: A Chronicle of Internment Life in Canada During World War II, won the Brutium “Calabria” Gold Medal in Rome and inspired the NFB documentary Barbed Wire and Mandolins (1997). More recently he has published Urban Harvest (Trans-Verse, 2004), Immigrant Songs, The poems, fiction and letters of Saro D’Agostino (Quattro Books, 2012) and The Other Passenger (Trans-Verse, 2013). He lives in Ottawa and teaches at Carleton University.

SARAH PINDER is the author of the poetry collection, Cutting Room (Coach House Books, 2012). Her writing has been shortlisted for the Expozine Small Press Awards and included in the anthology She’s Shameless, and magazines like Geist, Arc and Poetry is Dead. A zine-maker of over a decade, you can find her work in Montreal’s Distroboto art vending machines, as well as a mailbox near you. She lives in Toronto.

On Writing #31 : Kate Schapira

On Writing (Sentences)
Kate Schapira

            What does a sentence do?
            How does a sentence sound?
            I’m a poet whose job, at the moment, is to teach people how to write sentences. Not just sentences, but in prose writing the sentence is the first unit of making and order, the place where materials begin to become a structure, or a garment, or a fire, or a road, or a river.
In class, my first comparison is often to a machine. What drives the sentence? I ask my students. What moves, and what is moved? What has a bearing on the way it moves? Which parts move which other parts? Later we’ll talk about which parts are necessary, and which could be removed. We’ll talk about precision: what job is each part doing, and could another part—another word or phrase—do it better? We’ll use adjectives like swift, efficient, powerful, smooth, and nouns like impact and goal.  We do this most in the academic essay class, where students are learning to argue. Sometimes we act like they’re making an indestructible machine for imposing their will on someone else. A good sentence, in this reading, is a winning sentence, and a bad sentence is a losing sentence.
At home, I try to make some words do what I want. Then I try to let the words do what they want. Both feel strange, maybe because only one of us can “want” anything. But words do demonstrably have both their own meanings—resonances, echoes, histories, possibilities and waveforms proper to each—and the meanings they generate in their interactions with each other, the buzzing and yearning set up as their forms overlap, pushing and pulling on one another.
Where does a sentence lead?
            How does a sentence sail?
            I’m a poet who’s trying to teach herself how to write sentences. The more I read, the more I write, the more I feel what makes a sentence is its motion.
I read Virginia Woolf and try to write myself into the long game of her grammar, the long flexible phrases and high spires and occasional shortcuts. I read Gertrude Stein and ask: how is this a sentence? (Make it a real question, I say to my students.) I read Bhanu Kapil to feel for a sentence’s stress points, remembering a talk she gave on fragments and dismemberment. I read June Jordan and search my syntax for accountability and presence, and the different kinds of power that different kinds of sentences can have, or give.  I hesitate, my hand hovers: how can I know what kind of sentence anyone else needs but me?
            Is a sentence that meanders a weak road?
            Is a sentence that throws lots of sparks inefficient?
            I’m a poet, and it’s tempting to say that a good line of poetry is a bad sentence—does something a sentence would never dare to do, or is free from the rules that a sentence must follow. In fact, most of the poems I love best have in them at least some sentence sense, the power to carry me to a different place in mind. By reading, I offer them that power; by writing, I exert it. If it matters how I use that power, I can try to use it generously, well, in service of illumination. But if it only matters that I have it, how can I then create a sentence—a line, a structure—that gives it, that shares it, that opens it out?
            Questions can also be sentences.
            Structures can also hold openings open.

Kate Schapira is the author of four books of poetry, most recently The Soft Place (Horse Less Press). Her eighth chapbook, The Ground / The Pass / The Wave, came out last summer with Grey Book Press, and her newest, OVERHEARD WHILE HIDING FROM THE SUN, was recently published by above/ground press. She lives in Providence, RI, where she writes, teaches, and co-runs the Publicly Complex Reading Series.