Tuesday, September 23, 2014

On Writing #40 : j/j hastain

Infinite Chakras: a Trans-Temporal Mini-Memoir

j/j hastain

Writing is collaboration between spirit and matter. 

A long time ago, while the beautiful david wolach was telling me about poems about Anna Akhmatova and swans and I was thinking about bones being liquefied, I was asked by them what spirit even means. The first part of the jolt toward answering was stillness. I literally felt still inside. Then, the words: “The ineffable, an infinity of chakras, a cosmos-consciousness as inarguable intelligence by which many lenses and language wefts and wafts come into focus, a focus that can go on forever.” 

Paper drafts of wind drafts.                            Elemental drafts of elementals.

I have always preferred the journals in which, based on how the paper is made, the paper is not refined of its texture. I write in a journal that gives me literal splinters in my hands. Working with paper, working with the body, working with memory, all as bridges between spirit and matter (bridges herein, meant to emphasize where the two fuse and then overlap, not that the two are somehow separate) is a work in which I depend on feeling.

My long-time emphasis on feeling as mystical-elemental, and treated as such (by me) as a form of enablement in form, comes from how much of my memory consists of other-planar information. When you are in a human body, but are recalling experiences, senses, commitments, even sagacious swagger, from other realms (both in and outside of the human body), the result can be a hounding dysphoria. What am I to do with the fact that I know the flaming door in the forest wood, even somatically recall its heat, far more than I feel familiarity with any door in my childhood home or at a friend’s house? How will I relate to doors? Further, what of the fact that my gender (for me gender is a mystical site from which various embodiments are composed for the sake of the body as communion and resonance with cosmos-consciousness) is so feral, yet so discernible in the context of merge? In our intimacy, if you are this, then I know the that that I am, automatically, based on the contour, based on what makes the hinge of us grow fur or fruit. 

My framework is not frameless, though it is a freed frame: an infinity of chakras. This infinity involves immeasurable energy centers, each capable of being tuned up in order to assist with spiritual and magical work. How did I earn this perspective? Through lifetimes of devotion particular to fostering a vast view? Through rites which required so much of me, that I was literally stripped to bareness in Underworld after Underworld like Inanna? Through pledging myself to the queer corona? 

I trust these chakras like I trust a friend or a lover. In other words, I lean my entire weight into them. I have worked for them, after all. Are these chakras, worlds, populated by unseen beings? If so, are they also grounded by human beings who travel to them, astrally? When I dream of one chakra as a pastoral permeation, as a site in which a weaver can weave any form of cosmos materiality (from gold to dark matter) together into a wand (or dick) shape, am I dreaming my own memoir of this human life?

For me, writing is the commitment (in form) to communion with mysteries by way of the devotion required in order to follow the gnaw/ draw to create into an actual composition. Where devotion meets materiality can result in form being made! In addition to the devotion necessary in order for ephemeral architectures to be built, in order for these renovations of polluted socio-cultural configurations to take place, I commit to the fact that pages are trees. In the most basic sense, my writing is a root system that quests for various form and spirit symbiosis (with the cosmos (roots that climb the sky) as well as with the actual earth itself). Let’s just sit for a moment in the trees, call them forth to our consciousness while we ponder what trees might in fact feel for our pages.

Whether by stitching fragments, or following sound spools toward gatherings of matter on the page, whether bowing to the incarnation, the life-force present in collages, whether allowing myself to be possessed by the plentitude of data in the unseen but adjacent realm, (a realm by which I am being instructed or cautioned or even cleaved to), I am always just trying to ignite and then foster a passionate relation with the land (until it reaches the place of flourish, until the land senses itself as blessed by me).  

Mysteries are holistic. They go into and renovate caught or traumatized pockets in socio-cultural agenda—that radically alter the ways that those pockets have negative impacts on our bodies. Wholesome involvement with the planet cures schisms regarding not always feeling at home here. Why do I not always feel at home? As a queer, I am literally not at home in the context of conservative and exclusivist agenda, as a queer woman I am literally not at home in the context of patriarchy. As a being who works with the unseen realms and leans into them as much if not more as I lean into human relationships, I am definitely placed on the outskirts (by social norms and social expectations). As a person who knows that talking to myself is a way of communing with the divine, as a shaman of merge who actively brings outskirt-inhabitants (road kill, queers, unseen beings, mystics, etc.) into a circle, into a fold, I am definitely taking a different train than most. I believe my body is for this, and, due to my long-time commitment to them, my body is inseparable from pages. Pages as compassions of thought, as compassions of commissure.

When I get a rejection from a publisher—or even when I get an angry rejection letter from a publisher asking me what the fuck I think I am doing--when I get feedback from someone who reads one of my book and says “What is this? Is this stream of consciousness?”—how am I to respond? Do I say, “Yes, it is a beings’ stream and it was meant for you to not only wade in, but get naked in, run amok during dusk when an entire year’s worth of road kill owls hoot and holler from the trees above you—it was meant for you to enter it, get into it, not stand on the side and deliberate some confusion about it.” Do I lovingly chagrin? Or do I just see myself as a solitary and nod to a cookie cutter rejection, go and find a literal or another metaphorical cave in which to practice, to keep practicing?

I have been practicing with precise intent since I was a child. I have always had synesthesia and synesthesia has been integral to my synthesis, my spiritual and matter-based practices. Synthesis as a patchwork bond between myself and myself, between myself and another, between this realm and that one. Am I a peace maker between here and else? Am I chord-weaver? Is my body in a ready posture of servitude (of these realms in an effort at alleviating disparateness or discrepancy for the sake of what resounding, mixed thing could exist in its place) a form of cosmic glue?

I am clearing the infinite chakras of residue, of shame. I am dreaming round energy nodes that I can treat as master glyphs. Where a queer writing meets a queer attunement meets this queer body, comes an awareness by way of side-gates: side-gates that while finding (divining) ways to open them, provide clarifying rites just prior to the portal. 

Crucial features within an approximate fate.

j/j hastain is a collaborator, writer and maker of things. j/j performs ceremonial gore. Chasing and courting the animate and potentially enlivening decay that exists between seer and singer, j/j, simply, hopes to make the god/dess of stone moan and nod deeply through the waxing and waning seasons of the moon.

j/j hastain is the inventor of The Mystical Sentence Projects and is author of several cross-genre books including the trans-genre book libertine monk (Scrambler Press), The Non-Novels (forthcoming, Spuyten Duyvil) and The Xyr Trilogy: a Metaphysical Romance of Experimental Realisms. j/j’s writing has most recently appeared in Caketrain, Trickhouse, The Collagist, Housefire, Bombay Gin, Aufgabe and Tarpaulin Sky.

Friday, September 12, 2014

On Writing #39 : Peter Norman

Red Pen of Fury!
Peter Norman

For me, the bulk of poetry composition is editing. You write a poem once, but you rewrite or edit it up to hundreds of times. That initial surge of inspiration and excitement is important. But if it’s true that execution rather than content determines a poem’s quality, then it’s those obsessive hours of subsequent swabbing and polishing that make or break the poem.

On occasion, I have been lucky enough to have a poem pop out almost fully formed. In those cases, I would argue, some sort of internal editing was going on before pen touched paper. For example, a great many of those poems were sonnets or something close to sonnets. That kind of form does a lot of editing for you, both before you write and as you write. It has a dominant hand in shaping, structuring, guiding, eliding, pulling you back from one brink and nudging you off another. By contrast, none of my longer and more free-form poems came out ready to go.

It could also be suggested that the life you’ve lived up until you start writing a poem is a kind of editor. Experience—toiling at the craft, tinkering with the motor, making mistakes and trying to fix them—has the same guiding hand as I’ve described the sonnet form having. In which case a poem that I start today will be inherently better in its first draft than a poem I started twenty years ago. There may be a small bit of truth to this suggestion. But I recoil from it, because it sounds like an invitation to laziness. It’s not fun to watch older luminaries dribble bad simulacra of their brilliant early stuff, and it’s easy to imagine them using the “experience is editing” mantra to justify such sloppiness.

So back to those poems—the great majority—in which editing is the bulk of the work. By “editing” I mean everything from rewriting utterly to revising heavily to polishing lightly to rereading without changing a thing. (Sometimes I will reread a poem five or six times, and am just about to declare it done, before discovering one tiny improvement I’d missed before. So those were not just five or six vanity passes to luxuriate in a completed work; they were still part of the edit.)

I can hammer out a first version of a poem very quickly. It’s usually terrible. Maybe twenty percent of the time it shows promise. After one or two rewrites, I abandon maybe half of those promising ones; only about ten percent of my attempted poems make it through the end of the editing process. So in order to produce verse at any kind of reasonable pace, I have to take many swings and misses. (Lately I haven’t been swinging so much, and I wonder if my best at-bats are behind me. But these things come and go in inscrutable waves.)

If you’re lucky enough to end up published, you get the chance to work with an editor other than yourself. However obsessively you’ve picked over your own stuff, you have blind spots and you’ve overlooked certain flaws. Guaranteed. It’s been my privilege and joy to work with a superb editor (and literary hero of mine), Stuart Ross. And thanks to that process, I developed what’s become my current focus while self-editing: weeding out the overtly poetic.

Sometimes Stuart will flag a passage and say something like, “This isn’t working—it looks like you made this word choice because it ‘sounds poetic’” Not only is he right, but—to my horror—that mannered turn of phrase has been invisible to me! A blind spot, revealed. I’ve internalized some of the clich├ęs of contemporary poetry to the point that they simply spew out of me, much as a lifelong executive might spout phrases like “core values” and “going forward” without realizing how corporate she sounds. So I’ve been trying to identify my go-to “poeticisms” and excise them. Like writing to a set form, this can be a fruitful restriction.

That’s my current particular editing focus, but it’s only one of many things the self-editor must look out for. Clunky phrases; unintended repetition; redundant words; forced rhymes; pointless stanzas; bone-headed lapses in logic or syntax; mulish adherence to the logic of syntax; muddy bogs in the musical landscape; too cleanly musical a landscape; sterility; muck; stupidity; the overly clever. They all need to be hunted vigilantly, excised ruthlessly—or tended better, given more space to breathe, incubated properly like the maggots that consume and thereby define the casu marzu cheese.

Writing a poem is nice; it’s a pleasant diversion and it can make you feel boss about yourself. Much joy can be had brandishing the fountain pen or stabbing at the keyboard. But then the real work begins. An angry red marker, a delete button worn smooth—these are the tools of the poet’s trade.

Peter Norman's first poetry collection, At the Gates of the Theme Park (Mansfield, 2010) was a finalist for the Trillium Poetry Book Award. His new collection is Water Damage (Mansfield, 2013), and a third is forthcoming in 2015 from Goose Lane Editions. His novel, Emberton, was published this year by Douglas & McIntyre.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Recent Reads: THE RAIN OF THE ICE by Eric Baus


Published by above/ground press, 2014.

I’m as attuned to Eric Baus’ past work as I am to surrealism or Pauline Oliveros’ Deep Listening Institute, which is another way of saying I’m curious. Both practices, which seek transcendence through the dismantling of context, dutifully serve Baus’ approach on THE RAIN OF THE ICE. As such, these fourteen, conservative-in-structure prose poems are suspended in a volatile, imaginary world where creation is seething and smothered. Each entry acts as an origin but with subjects that often carry over; horses and pupae, like totems, reappear as distorted symbols in a codependent transformation. Attaching meaning to any of it is a daunting proposition, lest you run into a piece like this:


There is no wind, no blood, no sun. There is no sleep.
Not water. Not air. No capital, corpse, or crops. There
are no wolves or waves. No negative rain. Nor blue.
Nor birds. No bodies.

Given that surrealism and deep listening practices better define what isn’t than what is, it makes sense that Baus would snatch up the last assumptions we readers could cling to. And with "ECHO SOLVENT", the storm that has raged in elements and animals throughout much of this chapbook is suddenly sucked into a pinprick on white, a vacuum of lifelessness. What’s left in lieu of context? What represents absence? Clearly the vague summary I’ve gathered for the purposes of this review will only get me so far. The good news is our groundlessness allows Baus’ crisp language to stimulate us more acutely and from unsuspecting angles.


The injured octopus commandeered my limbs. It
furrowed a crown of iron from its sponge dome but I
felt no cruelty in the creature’s cage. The wall of its
body was more an annoyed wave. I was being guided,
rained into a room where a tiny moon arose. I was
being aired out, not raided. I touched the closest
tentacle and felt a burned down candle. We were
sharing an urn that was groomed for the cliffs. Mute
and molting, we grabbed talons. We were born in a
town around the block from our remains. We felt sad
for our hands. We had loved our lost moat.

Each time I read "LOST MOAT" I come away with something new. Does it weave in and out of metaphor or subsist on several, metaphoric skins? Does it really matter? The uneven physicality and iridescent mood of Baus’ struggle proves that his surrealist streak treads with intent, discipline. There's compassion amid the violence, too. Another selection that resists obvious meaning but relishes the journey’s poetic choices is "ALPHA VAULT":

The pupa condensed its peels with plumage. It
unpacked an ambushed breath. It hid in the densest
passage, wearing out the ether inside a downed cloud.

There’s a metamorphosis happening, in all its damp and sour stages, and that’s the draw; the assonance, alliteration and partial rhymes, not whether the transformation pans out. In this regard, THE RAIN OF THE ICE argues for the separation between a strong voice and strong statement. Baus’ engagement is so authoritative, it seems secondary that many of his details fail to coalesce into anything definitive. (Definitive would be missing the point.) Those who crave a tidy conclusion at the bottom of each page may find the indistinctness frustrating but others will delight in the dreamlike manipulation lurking these unassuming skins. 

Recent Reads: Braking and Blather by Emily Ursuliak

Braking and Blather by Emily Ursuliak

Published by above/ground press, 2014.

Emily Ursuliak’s new chapbook can be described as slim, even by above/ground press’ standards, but that does not make it slight. The single long poem, set in the vastness of British Colombia’s Mt. Swanzy, seems intent on contrasting expectations of space, stretching over pages in tight, vertical lines of rolling sentences. There’s contraction and expansion happening simultaneously, which compliments the ebb and flow account of two young women being toured around by a boisterous local.

His plump thumbs
are paper weights,
pinning the map,
the heft
of his barrel body
thrown forward,
as his index finger
etches possible routes.

The map
is more for Anne and Phyl
than for him:
Mr. Richter, their savior,
every goat track
and clear-cut path
is a memory woven
within a synapse.

The trio’s antics sound lackadaisical when reduced to a sentence and lend a carefree feel to whole sections of the poem. But with each spin and detour through the Rockies, Ursuliak’s detached voice gives rise to a sharper consciousness that, ever so subtly, casts doubt on the unfolding events. Mr. Richter seems affable enough for a stranger, but his inappropriate stories and suspicious “errands” make him a questionable guide for a night-drive in the wilderness. The language used to introduce Mr. Richter – “plump thumbs” “pinning the map” and “the heft of his barrel body” – doesn’t help, nor does his knowledge of the area which, combined, tips the scale of power squarely in the driver’s seat. This puts the reader in the passenger seat, and not because he or she is oblivious to the tale’s direction. Ursuliak is pitting the reader’s vigilance against the denial that discards worry as paranoia, and that mind game steers the tension.

A ranger lookout,
dwarfed by distance,
perches on a pine ridge
across the valley.
A fulvous glow haunts
its many windows.
The three clink beers
to celebrate the view.

I haven’t spoiled anything, story-wise, because Ursuliak’s tone leaves much to the reader’s interpretation. Internally I even scolded myself on first read, wondering from where was I receiving this perverse anticipation of wrongdoing, but the sense of unease is real. Run-ins with locals reduce the setting to small town familiarity, where otherness can be taken advantage of, and a shift in power, late in the poem, helps Anne and Phyl assert themselves, whether or not they're aware of it. Signs of danger may ultimately go unproven in the text but they’re hardly unfounded, which is why Braking and Blather creates such an impression: it conveys this worm of a worry, surfacing and submerging with each bend in the poem.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

On Writing #38 : Rupert Loydell

Intricately Entangled
Rupert Loydell

For the last decade or so my main way of writing has been to assemble phrases into a poem. These phrases come from my own notebooks, from books I am reading at the time (sometimes almost grabbed at random; at other times phrases I’ve jotted down whilst reading), from songs and CD covers, from newspaper and magazines, from in my head… a kind of ongoing diary of experience, reading and observations catalysed and changed by writing processes and my own creative and editorial process, which works towards poems that ask more questions than give answers, using collage and procedural writing as well as more traditional inspiration and personal confession.

Charles Bernstein has suggested that ‘Poetry is turbulent thought, at least that’s what I want from it… It leaves things unsettled, unresolved – leave you knowing less than you did when you started’, and my poems explore the world by association and analogy: the ‘voices’ or polyglossolalia of my work are present in the way the poems have been constructed, they accumulate meaning by juxtaposition and ordering; ‘conversation’ and ‘conference’ are inherent in the way themes may continue through sequences, series or individual poems. Joseph Conte suggests that ‘Serial and procedural forms provide alternative and complementary responses to postmodernity. […] The divine order as a single voice of authority has withdrawn to be replaced by a cacophony of channelled voices, or by no voice at all […]’

Themes emerge, tentatively appear and disappear in my poems. I try to keep my vocabulary everyday and readable, but distort syntax and linearity to make surprises, jumps, leaps of the imagination. What I read, see and engage with around me often gets directly collaged into poems, so it’s very personal. It’s my voice because I made it, the process is much more refined than ‘collage’ or ‘cut-up’.

This does, of course, means the reader has work to do, not least in relating their own reality to the poems presented to them. The poet Dean Young has an interesting response to an interview question about the possibilities of misunderstanding:

Do you think your poems are defined by misunderstanding?

I think they’re very much about misunderstanding.  ... I think to tie meaning too closely to understanding misses the point.

This misunderstanding is also about the discrepancy between language and reality, or object, which Ann Lauterbach has written about:

The world, for many poets, is apprehended as language; language is the material of the world. Every object is simultaneously itself and its word. For some poets, the word has more significance than the thing itself; for others, the thing takes priority over its word, and for still others, neither word nor thing has precedence. Although this might be seen as a mere matter of shift in focus, the consequences, in terms of the poet’s form, its construction, can be profound. Poets move around in the shadowy space between a word and its object, sometimes wanting to make the difference between the two appear seamless, and sometimes calling attention to the distinctions between them.

Not only this shadowy space is usable by poets, but the many diverse and specialist languages and objects the world offers are available as subjects. Dean Young responds to his interviewer asking about how he uses ‘the physicality of the world’ by referring to:

The junk of the world, which is maddening and wonderful. One great thing about the twentieth century is that any discourse can be poetic. [...] For instance in... I used mangled quotes from technical journals, which is not that experimental – it just allows tones to confront each other. That kind of collage is fun because it can really undercut what I’m doing. At some point I have to know what I'm doing, but that should be pretty far into the process.

In 1995 Robert Sheppard categorized his poem sequence thus: ‘The project Twentieth Century Blues is a “net/(k)not work”. One of its current aims is to link the unlinkable’, which is perhaps what Joe Amato means when he writes about the idea of ‘[e]verything in dialogue with everything else’. He also discusses this in another way:

Some poets stitch a kind of linguistic web between sites of picturing (description) and sites of telling (narration); some poets make clusters of sound which do neither and both at once, calling attention to the constellating properties of language, its capacity to confound temporal and spatial reality into a third thing: an event which participates in the construction of that reality. The idea that a poem can be granted the status of an event that shifts the course of cause and effect in a writer’s or reader’s life, has little to do with the idea of a poem as a bauble of verbal expressivity.

The poet Brian Louis Pearce asked me in an interview ‘How do you pattern your mosaic? Order your (found) dislocation?’ to which I replied ‘Same as all poets do. By theme, association, sound, rhyme, assonance, word count, syllable counts, visually, intuition.’ I would also agree with Dean Young , who suggests that at a certain point:

the poem takes on some kind of density, and it starts to coalesce. I may feel like there's a particular trace in it – like a narrative trace – that I can highlight a bit, to establish enough of a center of gravity so that other materials can be organized around it. Then I make selections in terms of musicality and measure.

I also like the fact that, as David Shields states, ‘collage teaches the reader to understand that the movements of the writer’s mind  are intricately entangled with the work’s meaning. Forget “intricately entangled with the work’s meaning”: are the work’s meaning.’

Rupert Loydell is Senior Lecturer in English with Creative Writing at Falmouth University, and the editor of Stride and With magazines. He is the author of several collections of poetry, including Wildlife and Ballads of the Alone both published by Shearsman Books. An artist’s book-in-a-box, The Tower of Babel, was published by Like This Press; and Encouraging Signs, a book of essays, articles and interviews by Shearsman. He edited Smartarse for Knives Forks & Spoons Press, From Hepworth’s Garden Out: poems about painters and St. Ives for Shearsman, and Troubles Swapped for Something Fresh, an anthology of manifestos and unmanifestos, for Salt. He lives in a village in Cornwall, UK, with his family and far too many CDs and books, and is currently working on a series of collaborative papers and chapters about the musician Brian Eno, as well as a number of interviews for the academic journal Punk & Post-Punk.