“I Have Tried to Track This” by Sierra Jacob

after Ana Prundaru’s photograph, Kamakura Beach in Japan

This is pulling out from a different coast     the tides cool a
slick back retreating     by now winds have settled     skin is
tight with heat and salt     by now light gleaning across surfaces
will start to find pattern     how quickly it scatters to multiply     you
will try to track it     I have tried to track this     tried
to reach out my hand and hold it all in place     I’d like to imagine

these deep rooted swells     that carried swift moving bodies all day     will
eventually     toss themselves on the North Shore     on the reefs of Ho`okipa     wash
up between drying sea turtles with laced white tumors     that
distances can be measured by the pathways of breakers     I’d like to
imagine I could sit with the throb of the sea     chant up the sun
but on open swept plains     thunderstorming of trains is the only
fury I can chart   here I can track fine ash over drought     dried
gold coaxing ground     I can track evening that does not fall into order
the     last sun will set alpineglow     and for a moment I can call it enough     I
can find sleet waves in the river     oil backed crows do it by hanging the prairie
on low sections of sky     on the coast     rain on pavement doesn’t raise up the

deep wet of the Pacific     it is the deep wet     along the
razored line of tide     dusk will be carried out     last of the sun
will fold to glassed undercurrent     boats will be moored     the
people will rise up from the shore     will free their belongings of sand
silent seep of returning back into     indentations evening out     I
imagine the shadows stop growing     but from here     I can’t see it.

JacobSierra_picSierra Jacob is an MFA candidate at the University of Montana, where she received the Richard Hugo Memorial Scholarship for poetry. Her poetry has appeared and is forthcoming in Sonora ReviewYemasseeThe Louisville Review, Compose, Cream City Review, Hawai`i Pacific Review, Pacifica Literary Review, Pretty Owl Poetry, among others. She was born and raised in Ha`iku, Hawai`i.

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This entry was posted in Poetry on June 22, 2016

“Hope and Anchor”: An Interview with Joshua Corey

CoreyJoshuapic2

Poetry can inspire us, confuse us, and excite neurons in the human brain to produces new thoughts and ideas. Joshua Corey’s newest collection of poems, The Barons, does all of these things and more, addressing the turmoil in America since 9/11: war, fear, and political upheaval both in the United States and abroad. Dark, complex, and unabashed, The Barons seeks truth where there may be none to find. Corey’s literary journey through this uncertain time takes many forms. John Ashbery writes: “Joshua Corey has reinvented the good old-fashioned American avant-garde epic poem and thrust it, kicking if not screaming, into the early 21st century.” Corey is an associate professor of English at Lake Forest College, where he co-directs Lake Forest College Press / &NOW Books. On “a sort of grey, fall day” from his home in Evanston, Illinois, he answered some of my questions about his new book, writing, and the inspiration of curiosity.

I’ll start at the beginning. Why did you choose Robert Duncan’s quote, “I write poems for the fucking stars,” as the opening?

I found that quote in Lisa Jarnot’s biography. I’m a pretty big Duncan fan. He’s a poet I resisted for many years because he’s so mystical. I sometimes call him the “Dungeon Master of American Poetry” but he has grown on me and become irreplaceable. Anyway, that’s something he said when he was giving a reading. I think someone raised the reasonable question “What are you doing this for?” Duncan was very much a coterie writer. He did have some fame, but poetry has always been a pretty marginal American activity. So, he came out with that and I love the insouciance of it. I love that, on the one hand, it acknowledges the reality of poetry’s audience and it also goes big. It’s very romantic. It echoes, maybe deliberately, maybe not, Emmanuel Kant, one of his famous remarks: “Two things fill me with awe: the moral law within me and the stars above me.” I guess I’m always trying to imagine the connection between cosmology, on the one hand, and everyday life and also the political life on the other. The book is sort of trying to think those worlds simultaneously.

Would you say your book is successful in doing that?

I don’t think that’s for me to say. It definitely represents, for me, a bit of a departure. The other books I had published up to that point were much more unified projects in some ways. They had a kind of a narrative. This book, I think, is more of a multi-pronged attack or negotiation, depending on my mood, with some of the forces I feel overwhelmed by. I think many of us feel overwhelmed by, here, in the early 21st century. Mostly capitalism run amok and environmental degradation.

CoreyJoshuaBookCoverIn The Barons, the poems in the section “Hope and Anchor” struck me as different from poems in the other sections. Other than the change to a more prose form, what makes these poems stand out from the rest?

That’s one of the sections that began its life as a chapbook. There’s another prose section in the book, “Complete Adventures,” where I allow myself to be a little more whimsical and humorous. There is material in those poems that connects to childhood. They’re more inward than other poems. They’re dipping in to this well of interior monologue that prose seems to enable to me. The verse in the book is much more surgical. They’re investigations of things outside the self.

In an interview with Stephen Ross, you called your writing “a re-engagement with traditional forms toward broadly ‘avant’ or innovative ends.” I wonder if you could expand on that idea. Does that still hold true with The Barons?

Yeah. I think that must have been my way of trying to reconcile the fact that I have long been interested in what you might broadly call traditions of innovative writing, innovative narrative, language poetry, and post-language poetry. At the same time, I have this very traditional background. I read a lot of straight up British classics when I was an undergrad. I can find a lot of value in traditional forms and traditional registers of writing. I seem to be obsessed with mid-century writers and thinkers, some of whom have been very fashionable and some of whom are less fashionable like Delmore Schwartz. There’s something about the New York ‘30s through 1960 literary imagination that really captivates me for some reason. I think a lot about what a post-modern epic might look like. Certainly the previous book, Severance Song—that was about the sonnet—is very much a traditional form. I guess I’m not even thinking in those terms now. I’m not finding that very useful for me. I find that the poems I’m writing are almost like a monologue. I think that might be a side effect of writing fiction as I’ve gotten more interested in playing with voice and different subtle shadings of persona.

You used the artwork of Joseph Beuys for the covers of both Beautiful Soul and The Barons. What connection his art has with yours?

I’d known about his work for a while, but I was in Berlin in 2011 and I saw an exhibition of his work at a museum there, the Hamburger Bahnhof I believe. I was really blown away by his use of sculptural elements that are so the opposite of brass or bronze or marble. Felt, animal fat. The organicism of it. Then as I began to delve more deeply into him, I discovered his performances, which just struck me as truly remarkably and profound. There are two performances that really struck me and I used images from each of them on the two books’ covers. The novel is from a performance he did in New York called “I like America. America likes me.” He locked himself up in this gallery in New York for six days with a coyote named America and gave it copies of the Wall Street Journal to pee on. The picture that’s on The Barons is from a piece he did called Iphigenia/Titus Andronicus, where he’s on a stage and he’s reading along with pre-recorded excerpts from these two plays, one of which I believe is Goethe’s translation of the Greek drama Iphigenia. Iphigenia, of course, was the daughter who Agamemnon sacrificed to the gods so he could go to war with the Trojans. Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare’s fantastic, bloody mess of a tragedy, which also has a central figure in it: a violated and sacrificed young woman. That was fascinating. I also love what he does with animals. There’s a horse on the cover, just grazing quietly. Some of his statements are very provocative. In one of his artworks, he says “Show your wound.” It sounds confessional, but it connects with the democratic idea about art that he had. “Everyone is an artist,” he liked to say. So on the one hand I was really engaged by his organicism, his diffidence about America. At the same time he is an interestingly compromised figure. He was a pilot or gunner who flew for the Luftwaffe during World War II and was shot down. There’s a legendary story about how he was rescued by these tribesmen who covered him in animal fat and felt and saved his life. It’s almost certainly not true but it’s part of his legend. The fact that this guy who, for all intents and purposes, a fighter for the Nazis, turned himself into a democratic, artistic shaman/saint with very progressive environmental values just fascinates me. I’m drawn to figures like Ezra Pound and Martin Heidegger, whose work opens ground for thought and creativity but who are, themselves, profoundly morally compromised. That makes Beuys a very generative figure. I’m not doing anything with him consciously right now but he’s probably in the back of my mind.

The Barons is kind of a culmination of a lot of work, basically stemming from 9/11 onward. What’s it like to work with such an expansive timeframe of work that you’re working with?

It’s interesting. Two of the book sections first saw the light of day as chapbooks. It’s pretty normal for someone to publish individual poems or even sequences of poems in magazines. I’ve been accumulating this work. In some ways I wanted to stand up for the old-fashioned idea of the collection because I do think it’s out of fashion now. I do think that most younger poets are writing thematically-unified books, like the ones I’ve published before. I like that. I like the book as a kind of unified gesture, but I also think there should be room for something that is more about investigating different processes, coming at the same subject matter from different angles, using different forms. There’s a pretty playful and self-conscious attempt at epic in this book. Also, very self-conscious lyric poems. Prose poems. It was kind of a smorgasbord but I do think there is a kind of an uneasy tone that’s pretty consistent throughout.

Clearly, your poems have a very diverse range, as you just said. What freedoms do you take and what restrictions do you impose on yourself?

Good question. I went through a period when I was really interested in various kinds of form. More or less closed form. My previous book is a book of sonnets, though many of the individual poems stretch the limits of the sonnet. I really can enjoy those kinds of constraints and rules. But I’ve become less interested in what you might call the “well-made poem.” I’m less interested in poems that are perfect little artifacts. I used to really enjoy these cunning little toys of language and now, this is something that I’ve really been influenced by my reading of Duncan in, I’m more interested in poems as documents of the process of life, experience, and thought. It’s okay with me if they’re a little more raw, a little more ragged. I’ve moved toward a longer line in many of my poems.

Your previous book, the one before The Barons, was a novel, and your next one is going to be a novel as well, correct?

Well, I had a sabbatical last year and I wrote a lot. I have another novel that I am shopping around. I have another poetry collection which I am not quite ready to send to a press. I have this weird hybrid book that I’m publishing pieces of online and in magazines. I also have a translation of some French prose poetry. So I’ve been very, very busy.

It certainly sounds like it. I was going to ask how it was to transition back from fiction to poetry or from poetry to fiction or if everything just kind of comes out when it comes out.

I like working on multiple projects at once. That seems to suit my mind. I can wake up and if I’m not in a poetry mood, I can work on some fiction. And in this one text, the hybrid one—I don’t really know what to call it—I don’t think I could have written that way if I hadn’t written straight poetry and then straight fiction. I’ve had a lot of academic training, probably too much, so the terrain I have to navigate at this point in my life is I have to unlearn and overcome a lot of rules and ideas that were implanted in me from getting too many degrees, that are not necessarily helpful now.

When you’re writing, either fiction or poetry, do you have a different mindset?

It’s definitely a different process. I’m still, in some ways, teaching myself how to write fiction. I had to give myself permission that was not easy to take to write fiction because we live in these professional castes. I have another fiction project I’m working on that feels like the most straightforward and natural fiction I’ve ever written. It’s the first book I’ve written or tried to write that reads like other books. It reads like the fiction I grew up reading, and that’s partly because it has a little bit of a sci-fi element to it. I feel like it uses a completely different territory than my poetry had, whereas the first novel I wrote is very much a poet’s novel. It’s got that kind of self-reflexive engagement with language that wants to double-back on itself. I’m gradually teaching myself to separate genres. I’m able to explore more. If I’m going to write a poem, I want to do something that only a poem can do.

In a self-interview you did with The Nervous Breakdown, you mention the “pervasive influence of MFA programs.” As someone who has an MFA, could you go into more detail about your feelings about them?

I had a great experience at my MFA. I made poet friends who are my closest and dearest poet friends. What I think we miss is some of the opportunity self-invention and the truly novel. Not so much in writing as in the social forms and the means of production of writing. What I mean by that is, in the early ‘90s, when the MFA industry was just getting going, even relatives who had no connection to art or writing were saying “Oh, you want to be a writer. You should go to school for that.” The very notion of there being a school for becoming a writer is odd. It’s a historically new idea. I just wonder, is it possible that there are other ways writers can come together, discover things, create things, that they simply aren’t doing until after the MFA.

As an Associate Professor at Lake Forest College in Illinois, you teach many different courses, from English 101 Intro to Lit to English 440 Advanced Writing Seminar. What do you try to impart to your students? What would you say is a unifying theme among the courses you teach?

I think those are two separate questions. If there’s one thing I try to impart, it’s something that I think cannot be imparted directly, and that’s curiosity. I really would hope to, if I had the power, to light a flame under my students’ asses and get them reading and investigating and writing on their own. I try to construct assignments that force them to do that. I’m teaching an Environmental Writing course right now where I’m trying to disable or detour their tendency to write expressively about the self and instead learn how to use the self, including their own body, to investigate other places, other spaces. For example, having them write a poem that has to have some research behind it. Ways to get them out of themselves and out of being a passive receptor or transmitter of media. I find there’s no way to teach that. I can only do my best to model it. There’s a great quote, by someone like John Cage: “The only difference between me and my students is I’m better at not knowing at what I’m doing.” I try to model for my students not knowing what I’m doing, that that’s okay and that it’s a productive place to stand from. Maybe that does answer both questions.

What kind of curiosity or creativity are you trying to explore with The Barons, in yourself or in others? Or what kind of creativity are you trying to inspire?

I feel like writing begets writing. I was fortunate to have at about fifteen years old, an “Aha” moment. I was taking a summer poetry class. The rather insane teacher, God bless him, gave us all the massive Norton Anthology of Poetry. I just read around in that thing. Instead of being intimidated, as by all rights I should have been, I thought it was fantastic. There were so many different kinds of writing and they were all poetry. All these different registers of language. That made me think that this was something that I want to do. I certainly hope, that at the minimum, if someone reads my book, that they get a little of that feeling for themselves. I hope they think “Here’s a person trying to figure out how to live in a very difficult and confusing time, negotiating with these forces much larger than himself. Maybe I could do that, too.”

Who you were reading now?

In terms of poetry, I’m reading older things. Some French poetry. I mentioned the translation project. I’m translating the first major book of Francis Ponge, “Le parti pris des choses,” which I’m calling “A Partisan of Things.” That’s going to come out from a little press called Kenning next year. Reading him got me interested in that mid-twentieth century. I found myself reading René Char seriously for the first time. I found myself rereading Paul Celan, who was very important to me early in my writing career. He’s somebody who is really testing language and himself in almost impossible conditions and producing haunting, strange, beautiful work. More contemporary work, there’s a Canadian poet named Ken Babstock, whose work I just love. He can be really vicious and funny and sad. He’s got a new book that is very different from anything he’s done before. In general, I’m a fan of the Canadians. I’m also reading a lot of fiction these days because I’m writing a lot of fiction. I just picked up Rachel Cusk’s book, Outline. The main character spends a lot of time listening to other people talk, so you get this negative space of her. I’m really interested in that. I could go on. I read a lot.

—interview by Lee Geiselmann

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This entry was posted in Interviews on May 18, 2016

“Time Space: Places They’ve Never Met” by Janet Dale

“Is it e’en so?—Then I deny you, stars!”
—Romeo and Juliet (5.1.25)

According to The Astrology Book: The Encyclopedia of Heavenly Influences by James R. Lewis, a birth chart (or astrological chart) calculates the position of various celestial bodies throughout the heavens as viewed from the Earth at the moment of an individual’s birth. And even though the legitimacy of astrology has changed since the discovery of physics and astronomy, many still believe that the position of the sun, moon, stars, and planets have heavy influence on an individual. These positions are calculated and charted both symbolically and in actuality similar to how longitude and latitude is measured.

In a simplified version of astrology often found in newspapers or magazines, it is the Sun’s location at the time of birth that is directly related to a “sign.” 

Sun in Scorpio at 26° 06′ | Sun in Taurus at 18° 27′

Positive characteristics often associated with Scorpio (his sun sign): focused, brave, balanced, faithful, ambitious, and intuitive. Negatives include: jealous, resentful, secretive, and manipulative.

Positive characteristics often associated with Taurus (her sun sign): generous, dependable, down-to-earth, patient, independent, and persistent. Negatives include: stubborn, self-indulgent, materialistic, lazy, and possessive.

Moon in Capricorn at 22° 07′ | Moon in Gemini at 13° 45′

It takes the Earth’s only natural satellite 27.3 days to complete one orbit, waxing and waning along its elliptical path. As it moves, the moon pulls at anything to bring it closer; the Earth is able to hold on to most things—except water. No matter where one is located in the world, together or apart, looking upward into the night sky the moon is shared.

Mercury in Scorpio at 09° 26′ | Mercury in Aries at 22° 13′

He was born in the top left hand corner of the United States, the lush verdant Pacific Northwest near the Canadian border not far from Vancouver. Her only trip to Canada happened nine years after that—visiting family near Toronto—more than 4,300 miles east. She was born closer to our neighbors to the south, in the Lone Star State, on the Army base he’d be stationed at when he turned 21.

Venus in Scorpio at 29° 10′ | Venus in Gemini at 14° 44′

Celestial navigators—such as mariners travelling by water—rely upon chronometers, sextants, almanacs, and other tools to traverse by stars and planets. They learn constellations then draw imaginary lines, calculating degrees, and angles in order to know where they are in the world.

In the Northern hemisphere Polaris (above the North Pole) is the most important point, while in the Southern hemisphere it is the Crux (above the South Pole). Only cloud cover can get in the way.

Mars in Scorpio at 14° 40′ | Mars in Leo at 11° 48′

Scorpius (Sco) is part of the family of constellations named for the zodiac. Antares—the brightest star within the pattern—is located near the scorpion’s “heart” and glows reddish. It lies within the Southern hemisphere and occupies an area of 497 square degrees. Apollo sent a scorpion to attack Orion for claiming to be a better hunter than his sister. To show displeasure at the quarrel, Zeus cast both the hunter and the scorpion into the heavens. 

Jupiter in Pisces at 08° 23′ | Jupiter in Cancer at 04° 26′

Taurus (Tau) is also part of the family of constellations named for the zodiac. Its brightest star—Aldebaran—functions as the “eye” of the bull, seemingly glaring at Orion who is located to the southwest. It lies within the Northern hemisphere and occupies an area 797 square degrees. After falling in love with Europa, Zeus transformed himself into a magnificent white bull with golden horns to take her away with him across the sea.

Saturn in Cancer at 18° 38′ | Saturn in Leo at 23° 49′

He intersected the muddy river at the Hernando-Desoto Bridge while driving a Cavalier cross country. Two years later after missing an exit on the Tennessee side, she would accidently drive a different Cavalier across the same bridge.

Cutting the country in half, the 2,340-mile Mississippi river begins at a glacier lake in Minnesota then runs south before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico at New Orleans.

Uranus in Libra at 29° 51′ | Uranus in Scorpio at 14° 12′

The Rhine is one-third the length of the Mississippi and begins in a glacier lake in Switzerland before running through five more countries emptying into the North Sea.

When visiting Germany, he boarded a sightseeing boat somewhere around Rudesheim to explore the river. She had taken the tour seven years earlier while living in Germany. They rounded the same rock on the eastern bank where the legendary Lorelei sat murmuring to sailors; throwing them off course.

Neptune in Sagittarius at 08° 51′ | Neptune in Sagittarius at 17° 42′

His first experience with ghosts occurred while driving one summer night north of downtown New Orleans. He said the absence of light made the sudden circus music playing among abandoned industrial building that much more eerie.

The next year after visiting the French Quarter, she wandered through a maze of above ground tombs and mausoleums inside both St. Louis No. 1 and Lafayette No. 1. Looking to connect to spirits, knowingly she experienced none.

Pluto in Libra at 08° 27′ | Pluto in Libra at 14° 28′

Her last experience with ghosts occurred while visiting a now mostly abandoned mental hospital located in the town where she attended graduate school. Despite the soaring summer heat that day, all she felt was freezing air when sliding a camera inside broken windows to take pictures.

He was in Georgia the year before, taking advanced training classes at the home of the Signal Corps about 83 miles away; another missed point of intersection.

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Janet Dale’s work can be found in Zone 3, Really System, Atticus
Review, among others. She holds a BA in English from the University of Memphis and an MFA in Creative Writing from Georgia College. She has been a pharmacy technician, a reading teacher, and has worked on journals such as the Flannery O’Connor Review, Arts & Letters, and Wraparound South. Currently, she teaches first year writing at Georgia Southern University.

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This entry was posted in Nonfiction on May 11, 2016

“To blossom or diverge or dissipate or redirect”: An Interview with Brian Clements

ClementsBrianphotoTo some, prose poetry may seem foreign and hard to pin down. The form walks the murky waters between reading surrealist poetry. To make matters more confusing, there is no consensus on exactly what defines the form. But Brian Clements’ new collection helps to clarify matters. A Book of Common Rituals relates readers to day-to-day activities they are sure to understand: working, eating, and sleeping among those. I still find myself flipping through its pages, hoping to absorb some of its magic.

Brian Clements seems to be something of an enigma, albeit a prolific one. He’s published nine poetry collections, founded Firewheel Editions press and the prose poetry journal Sentence, and coordinates the low-residency MFA program at Western Connecticut State University. Clements’ poems seem to document our everyday routine in the morning, afternoon, and evening. I corresponded with Clements through email, what he calls a “digital space.” In an essay written for American Poetry Review, he explains that “there is no studio” with the invention of the Internet, and how his writing—including the answering of these questions—can be done from various locations. From these different locales, we discussed prose poetry, appropriation, and how to join the literary community.

I’ve often felt like an outsider to prose poetry, maybe because of how differently it can appear on the page from writer to writer. To me, ‘prose’ makes me think of long chunky pieces of text, and I have a hard time translating that into a poetic idea.

I do not think of prose poetry as a “form.” There are no “rules” for the prose poem as there are for sonnets, villanelles, etc. I think of prose poetry as simply a subgenre of poetry, just as free verse and verse are subgenres of poetry. As Michael Benedikt put it, the prose poem can use every device available to free verse except the line break. That’s really the only thing absent in prose poetry that you’ll find in free verse. Where free verse uses the tension between line and sentence, the prose poem must rely upon the sentence itself as the unit of progression and find other sources of tension.

I always find it fascinating that despite the fact that “prose poetry” and “free verse” have been around for pretty much exactly the same amount of time (more than 150 years), most people are shocked to find out that there is such a thing as “prose poetry.” “How is that possible?” they demand—“Poetry cannot be prose!” Yet they are perfectly willing to accept that “verse” can be “free.” Why? I am convinced it is because much early free verse was adaptable to ways of teaching poetry as literature using New Critical methodologies, while prose poetry, on the surface, seemed not to be adaptable in that way. Prose poetry, for a long time, also was the province of rebellious troublemakers like Rimbaud and the Surrealists and Gertrude Stein, whereas free verse pretty quickly made it into the mainstream on the heels of Eliot, Williams, Marianne Moore, and Stevens.

In colloquial usage, “verse” has come to be synonymous with “poetry.” Technically, of course, verse refers to language that features regularly measurable patterns, whether of syllables, of beats, or both. But, also colloquially, when folks refer to something—say an athletic move or the design of an automobile—as “poetic,” they mean nothing having to do with regularity or measurability; they usually mean something like “graceful” or “beautiful.” Not all poems, of course, are graceful, beautiful, or in verse.

So, then, there are no real measures for what makes a poem a poem?

This talk all begs the question that there is something common to all poetry, that there is a definition of poetry that satisfies all examples. I tend to think that there probably is no such definition and that “poetry” is a culturally contextual discourse. There are indicators in prose poems that invite readers to think of the texts as poems—foregrounding of sound and music of the language, parataxis and associative logic, figuration, strategies of closure, for some non-ubiquitous examples—as well as the contexts in which prose poems are experienced—literary journals, poetry readings, volumes of poems, poetry classes, anthologies, etc.—that offer the claim “this thing is a poem.” Readers are welcome to accept or reject that invitation or claim as they see fit, but to argue that these things cannot possibly be poems is to deny that genre is fluid and changing. One might as well argue that lyric poetry is only that which is performed to the accompaniment of a lyre.

So my advice, then, is to think liberally about genre, not to worry so much about whether a text is or isn’t a poem, and write in the way that seems best for the goals you want to accomplish with the effect you want to create. Of course, one can’t possibly know what effects are available without experimentation.

In A Book of Common Rituals, you write commands, such as the “Ritual for Beginning” which tells the reader to “Pull the drapes or close the blinds. Shut off the light.” I can see myself following the rituals for drinking coffee or doing my office work. Are the rituals in the book meant to apply to the reader? Do your rituals apply to one specific type of person?

My hope is that while reading or listening to the poems, the reader/listener will imagine herself performing the ritual, or, at least, will imagine someone else performing the ritual.

The rituals are divided on the page: on the left, the poem, and on the right, either text or an image that, in some way, corresponds. Sometimes these are abstract, “Tree Ritual I,I” for example, faces a Johnny Appleseed-themed crossword puzzle. Are these pairings meant to tell two different kinds of daily rituals?

I wanted to play with the possibility in the book that the effects of poems don’t have to end at the last line. This phenomenon actually can be seen in many books in the use of repeated lines or refrains in multiple poems or other kinds of reflections or conversation among the poems. I like some poems that have neat closure, but I think I am more interested in poems that open up or blossom or diverge or dissipate or redirect. So I saw the accompanying texts and images as ways to do those things, with the hope that the texts and images would help to make the poems something a little more, with tendrils that move out beyond the imaginative world of the poems in into the political, physical, religious, commercial world outside the text. So the accompanying texts and images can be both amplifications of and commentary on the poems.

In an interview with Cheryl Pallant, you described yourself as “all for interesting ways ofClementsBook_pic using appropriation; all of our language … is borrowed from elsewhere.” Is this where the idea of borrowing recipes or news clips on business transactions came from for A Book of Common Rituals? Do you begin with appropriation and then write about it, or are you more interested in writing something and then pairing it with another piece for contrast?

Our identities are composed of collections of experience (“I contain multitudes.”). We are constantly collecting memories, words, phrases, sensations, embarrassments, failures, images, desires, calculations, and so on. We don’t “create” any of this material—our brains collect, synthesize, re-arrange. I think the same way about writing—all writers are collectors and re-arrangers. I wanted to play with those facts in this collection and wanted to feel free to wander beyond the borders of what would be considered “poetry” or even “prose poetry,” so that the poems were just among the many things being collected and presented. In some cases, the ritual poems came first and I selected accompanying material later, and in other cases the material inspired the poems.

In the 2009 anthology An Introduction to the Prose Poem, you wrote “prose poets tend to look for wide varieties of cultural discourse as models for their poems.” I can see all of the different cultural influences in A Book of Common Rituals through the very distinct cultural activities that become rituals, from the ways we eat to the ways we dance. Can you discuss this discourse and its importance a little further?

The poet and critic Jonathan Holden wrote a book, back in the 80s, I think, that had an argument I didn’t buy entirely, but I liked part of it. If I remember it correctly, he argued that postmodernity in American poetry was founded on the borrowing of cultural forms—the confession, the grocery list, the editorial, the letter, the newspaper article, the joke, etc. I’m not sure I buy that it’s a hallmark of postmodernism or even that what Holden calls postmodernism is what I call postmodernism, but there is no doubt that this borrowing of cultural forms that Holden saw was active in American poetry. I simply used that paradigm as a way of organizing An Introduction to the Prose Poem because it was a useful way to get at a number of tendencies in prose poetry that were illustrative to students interested in exploring prose poetry and trying their own hands at writing prose poems. You mentioned in one of your first questions that you had a hard time working your way into the idea of prose poetry, and I think a lot of students have that problem because it’s a proposition that is simply contrary to their (mis)educations about poetry. So one of the functions of the anthology is to help students overcome that obstacle by providing some easily relatable types of prose poems—many of which happen to be borrowed cultural forms: the anecdote, aphorism, fable, rant, essay, letters, postcards, and scripts, for example.

So does this idea come through in A Book of Common Rituals?

I’m playing on the idea of ritual in general as the cultural form borrowed, and religious ritual in particular. All religions have rituals, and the purpose of ritual is to mark or create some kind of transformation—from childhood to adulthood, from individual to part of a married couple, from unordained to ordained, etc. I wanted to explore the ways that poems can be personally transformative, so I both take that as the subject of many of the poems and try to find ways in the poems to enact small moments of transformation.

An Introduction to the Prose Poem has been described by N2 Poetry as helping to demystify the genre by explaining “what makes a prose poem a poem rather than simply short prose.” This is a common misconception, at the very least for me. What compels you to celebrate prose poetry as opposed to other forms?

Well, as I mentioned before, there was a time when I was writing prose poems, as a kind of obsession, I suppose. Around that time, an important journal called The Prose Poem: an International Journal (which was run by Peter Johnson and named after the very influential and important anthology edited by Michael Benedikt, The Prose Poem: an International Anthology) ceased publication. It was an opportune time to start a new journal on the heels of The Prose Poem, so that’s when I launched Sentence. After several years of editing Sentence, writing about prose poems, and teaching the prose poem in writing courses, it occurred to me that there wasn’t an anthology on the market that was designed as a classroom tool for students interested in the prose poem; so that’s how An Introduction to the Prose Poem was conceived. It’s intended to be a model of possibilities in the subgenre, as opposed to a canon-making project.

Many prose poems that I have read are inspired by the surreal. One of the most well-known that comes to mind is Allen Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California,” which is less about supermarkets and more about an imagined conversation with Walt Whitman. Does the surreal come easily to prose poetry because the form lends itself to it, or is it completely up to the writer? How do you balance the surreal and the everyday in your poetry?

The surreal/Surrealist tendency in prose poetry probably is a matter of tradition. Poets such as Max Jacob, Henri Michaux, Robert Desnos, and Antonin Artaud were adapters of the prose poem to the absurdist tradition, following in the path of Rimbaud. Ginsberg’s poem brings a little bit of Surrealist silliness to his celebratory, Whitmanic voice. It’s a fun poem, as are many surrealist poems and many prose poems. Fun seems to be an important part of the prose poetry tradition, though certainly not all prose poems grow on the “fun” branch.

I don’t think the prose poem is any more open to the surreal or absurdism than any other form of writing, though. One thing the prose poem can do is put all of the language in the poem on an even level so that there are no hierarchies of attention (line breaks, spacing, beginnings of lines), and the poet can slip in little surprises unexpectedly.

As a current MFA student, I still feel as though I must break into the literary community, and with differing opinions on the usefulness of MFAs, this can sometimes seem like a hindrance. How does an MFA student connect with the writing community as a whole?

One of the things that I discovered in Dallas, where I helped to found a nonprofit literary center called The Writer’s Garret, as editor and publisher of Sentence and Firewheel Editions, and as Coordinator of the MFA program here at Western Connecticut State, is that it is probably more efficient to build a community among writers and readers than it is to try to break into a pre-existing community. Of course, the publishing world is a pre-existing community, and that’s the community that many of us want to enter most.

However, building other, smaller communities—starting literary journals, starting a small press, starting a reading series out in the community, starting a writer’s group, offering literary programming to the public, submitting work to literary journals and presses, attending conferences and book festivals, reading widely among multiple literary journals so that you know what is being done now—is a good way to become what it is in vogue now to call a “literary citizen.” Rarely does anyone everyone make it into the “published” club without first building that citizenship.

—interview by Alyssa Cohorn

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This entry was posted in Interviews on May 5, 2016

“What I am is a militant translator”: An Interview Mitchell Abidor

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Emmanuel Bove’s harrowing 1932 novella, A Raskolnikoff, was released to the American public late this year. With Mitchell Abidor’s stunning translation—for which he has won the 2014 Hemingway Translation Grant— comes a new hope for one of literature’s forgotten sons.

Abidor is the right translator for the job. A contributing writer at Jewish Currents and a translator of French, Portuguese, and Italian for the Marxist Internet Archive, Abidor has translated hundreds of texts and published numerous collections from a myriad of radical political writers, from 17th Century France to Revolutionary Russia. Abidor’s most recent translation, however, is a departure from the radical political essays. Emmanuel Bove (1898-1945) was a prolific French writer who published over thirty books in his lifetime and garnered praise from Albert Camus, John Ashbery, and Samuel Beckett. Abidor’s translation of A Raskolnikoff, which Bove wrote in 1932 as “a continuation” of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, is a logical extension of his other works in translation as well as an optimistic new phase for the literary legacy of Emmanuel Bove. I reached out to Abidor by phone to hear his take on Bove’s legacy, the state of revolutionary writers and their works, and the art of translation. He spoke to me just days after returning from Vienna, from the dining room table of his home in Brooklyn, surrounded by books—Cortazar, Kafka, Dostoevsky, Bove, Borges, Beckett, Philip Roth, Jean-Patrick Manchette—and “watched by framed portraits of Kafka, Robert Bresson, Ataturk, Eva Peron, Joseph Roth, Jean Jaures, and my favorite baseball player when I was ten years old, Roman Mejias of the Houston Colt .45s (now the Astros) as well as a 1962 team picture of the Colts and a still from the greatest film ever made, La Jetee.”  

BoveBookCoverWhen and how did you discover Emmanuel Bove?

That is a really good story! I’m sure you’ve never heard of Emmanuel Bove before right? He really is quite a writer. Thirty-some years ago, I went to see a film by the great German director, Wim Wenders called Reverse Angle. It is a series of films, like film essays. In one of them, he’s reading Mes Amis (My Friends, 1924), which is really Bove’s best novel. And he talks about how Peter Handke, the great Austrian writer who’s his friend, told him about Bove. And just the way he described Bove in the film, I said “You know what? The next time I’m in France, I need to pick up something by Bove.” And that was what happened. I picked up Mes Amis, and it was one of the greatest books I ever read. I couldn’t believe how brilliant it was. And it was also fascinating because Bove had been completely forgotten for decades.

Because he had been forgotten, was it difficult to find his work?

No. Because what had happened was, in the late ’70s, there was a guy named Raymond Cousse who rediscovered Bove’s books and they were starting to be republished. It was only in the late ’70s/early ’80s that Bove made a comeback. And so every time I went to France, a couple more books had come out over the course of that year, and I just bought everything that I could. So that was how I discovered Bove. And nothing was available in English for a few years so I would always tell people “when these books come out, you’ve got to get them.”  Now most of his books are available in English, or a lot of them, anyway.

Brian Evenson writes in his introduction that the works of Bove have undergone a sort of Melvillian revival in France. What do you imagine the reasons are behind this revival? Have Bove’s novels somehow become more relevant in the eyes of readers? 

Once you get people to push a writer to bring him back, it really helps. Raymond Cousse worked hard and convinced publishers to bring his stuff back. But what’s also been a huge help for Bove is the fact that Peter Handke, the Austrian writer who translated Bove into German, is one of the most respected writers in the whole world. So when you have somebody like Handke on your side, it’s a big help. And then once he comes back, once people start reading him, his best novel comes back first.

Which was My Friends?

My Friends, right. And once that happens, then this one comes out and then that one. And so you build up a head of steam. So that’s why now, at this point, books can come out of stuff that has never been published because he has an established audience.

This particular novella that you’ve translated, A Raskolnikoff, was written by Bove as a sort of sequel to—or, as Bove says, “a continuation” of—Dostoevsky’s great novel Crime and Punishment. How exactly does Bove’s novella function as a continuation of Crime and Punishment, given their difference in time and place?

One of the reasons I love A Raskolnikoff is because I thought it could be the title to for almost every one of Bove’s novels. Because so many of his novels are about young people just kind of lost, living in shabby apartments. All of his main characters, in all of his books that matter, are all Raskolnikoff.

The sensibility of Crime and Punishment can be transported anywhere. Raskolnikoff could be American, could be French, could be anybody. He doesn’t know what to do with his life. He considers himself better than what he’s doing. He’s unhappy. At some point in our lives, we’re all Raskolnikoff’s. I know I was.

You won the 2014 Hemingway Translation Grant for your translation of A Raskolnikoff. How important are grants for translators and are there many of them available?

Donald Breckenridge, the managing editor of Red Dust, knows people at the French Cultural Service in New York and thought to apply for the grant, which exclusively covers the translator’s fees. This works both for the publisher and the translator, since the grant, $2000, is a good one if you’re doing a book for a small house, which normally can only afford a fraction of that. There are a number of grants out there, but the competition is fierce, and granting agencies are hard to figure. For example, it’s all but impossible to get grants for translations of the great Victor Serge, because he was of Russian heritage and was born and grew up in Brussels. So though he lived for a time in Paris and wrote some of the most important French novels of the middle of the 20th century, he wasn’t French, so they won’t help.

In your biography page of the Marxist Internet Archive, you say: “My MIA work revolves primarily around translations from the French, Portuguese and Italian, in all of which I’m self-taught.” Where and when did you inherit your interest in translation, and in all these languages?

I specifically taught myself all of these languages. I’m not bragging, but I’m just really good at languages. I think back to some of the things that I said in French early on when I first taught myself French and I was living in Paris—I couldn’t speak a word of the language, not one word. But somehow, instinctively, I knew what to say. I knew how to construct the sentences, I even knew how to work out idiomatic expressions. And so if you’re good at languages, you’re good at languages. I can see English through these other languages somehow.

French is also one of the languages you taught yourself?

I learned French at the movies. It’s a story I tell everyone, and it’s absolutely true. I learned it going to the movies. I was a film major in college. So I used to see four films a day. And I loved French cinema.

When you go about translating something, do you just sit down with the book and go though it line-by-line? How does that work?

That’s the way to do it. I never studied translation. I just picked it up as I went along. So I do a first draft where I just get all the words on the page. And I don’t worry about style. I just make sure I have everything there. I have a framework. And then I do a second draft where I make sure that I have all the words. And I compare it to the text again, and fix it up so it reads a little bit better. And then I do a third and a fourth draft where I ignore the original because I know I have everything in the original. I just make sure it reads like good English.

In fact, the book that I’m working on now is a collaborative effort. I’m working on it with a young guy in London, and it’s clearly his first time translating. And he’s making all the same mistakes that I made when I first started translating, which is sticking too closely to the original. French—the sentence structure is completely different, and their vocabulary, they have fewer words than we do. So if you stick too closely to the French, it doesn’t read very well in English. I always thought that Bove would be really easy to translate. And it was easier than most, but it was still a challenge because you have to express the style. Just the mere fact that it’s simple doesn’t mean that it’s got no style.

Most of the translations you do are not necessarily novels. Did your method change with A Raskolnikoff? Did you feel you had more room to be creative?

I’ve now translated a bunch of non-fiction—political stuff, histories, the novel, and some poetry. And it may sound kind of trite, but the challenges of all of them are so completely different. For example, when I translate the writings of some anarchist bomb throwers of the late 19th Century, clearly they’re not great stylists. So it’s just a matter of getting the ideas across so they sound well in English. With Bove, the challenge was to not make it sound stilted because his style is so simple and direct. And you also don’t want it to sound impoverished. Because they have fewer words in French than we have in English. And you don’t want to just take the first definition of a word, which is not really what a novelist would be thinking when they write it.

As a translator, your body of work—which includes the collections: Anarchists Never Surrender: Essays, Polemics, and Correspondence on Anarchism, 1908–1938 (PM Press, 2015); and A Socialist History of the French Revolution (Pluto Press, 2015), along with countless others— seems to focus extensively on the works of progressive revolutionaries throughout Europe, from as early as the 17th century. Could you comment on these various writers? Who are they, what sort of things are they writing about, and why is it important that we read and study these writings today?

I have a theory about this. I’m notoriously misanthropic. Despite my being on the left, I really don’t like people, and I really don’t like the human race, which is why Raskolnikoff is perfect for me. So I was sitting with a friend, and he says, “You know, I don’t see you as the kind of guy standing on street corners, handing out leaflets or marching in demonstrations or organizing the working class.” I said, “No, I do the translations that inspire other people to do the work that I’m too lazy to do.” What I am is a militant translator. And I told this story to a friend of mine in London. She so loved it that when I saw her again three days later, she handed me 500 business cards that said “Mitchell Abidor: Militant Translator.” And that’s what I am.

Here’s the reason why it’s important that we read all of these writers: when I was growing up as a Leftist, there were all kinds of people I wanted to read but I couldn’t because I couldn’t read any of these other languages. So once I got the ability—I taught myself all these languages—I wanted to first read them myself. And then I figured, if I had always wanted to read writings by these people, there must be other people who wanted to read them and can’t either. And that’s why I do the translations. It’s my way of giving voice to these people who have no voice in English. They’re the ventriloquists and I’m the dummy.

It’s all part of a revolutionary tradition. People know the names of these writers, but they don’t know really anything about them. I’m not a big fan of interpretation. So what I try to do in all of my books is present the raw document. Let the readers make their own decisions. That’s why most all of my books are anthologies. So rather than be a slave of somebody else’s interpretation, I’ll just give you what they said and you decide. Then, if you read the interpretations, you can see if they’re right or not.

Is your translation of A Raskolnikoff meant to supplement these more explicitly political writings or is it meant to be separate from or peripheral to your other work?

That’s a great question. And here’s what it is: it resonates with the other side of me. Somewhere within me is that same miserable wretch that I was at twenty. I’ve never shaken him. And actually all of my favorite writers all speak to that really cynical misanthropic me that’s still within me. That’s what A Raskolnikoff is: it’s me expressing that other side of me that doesn’t believe that politics make any difference, that thinks that people stink. So actually there’s no connection between the two except that the one is the mirror image of the other.

interview by Josh Bovee

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This entry was posted in Interviews on April 27, 2016