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Thursday, March 23, 2017

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Emily Izsak



Emily Izsak is in her second year of U of T’s MA in English and Creative Writing program. Her work has been published in Arc Poetry Magazine, The Puritan, House Organ, Cough, The Steel Chisel, The Doris, and The Hart House Review. In 2014 she was selected as PEN Canada’s New Voices Award nominee. Her chapbook, Stickup, is available on woodennickels.org and her first full-length collection, Whistle Stops, will be out in April 2017 from Signature Editions.

1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first chapbook was really just compilation of everything I had done up to that point that felt half decent. I had more of a concrete plan when I began writing my first full-length book. I like Whistle Stops more than anything I have ever written. Once, while I was working in a pottery studio (shouts out to Clay Design), a customer asked me if I was a potter. I told her no, that I was a poet. She responded, “well, you’ll figure something out someday.” Having a book makes me feel like I’ve figured something out and like calling myself a “poet” isn’t so presumptuous.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
It’s always been poetry. I don’t know why. I think because I want to write things that I want to read, and I often want to read poetry more than I want to read fiction or non-fiction.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
It takes me anywhere from an hour to a few hours to write a poem (and I write fairly short poems). I sort of have notes. I usually collect a bunch of words that I like on a page in the document I’m working on and whenever one gets used in a poem I’ll remove it from the bunch. First drafts and final drafts would look pretty similar to people who aren’t me, probably, but little edits (changing a word here and there or taking out an article) make a big difference to whether or not I feel like a poem is finished.

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Definitely working on a book from the beginning (my first chapbook is an exception). I don’t think I could go back to writing individual pieces. I like how poems in a book can coalesce and call back to each other and also there’s less pressure on each individual poem to be all-encompassing.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I’m not good at public readings. My voice isn’t particularly loud or dynamic. I like hearing people laugh at the jokes in my poems, though. I also like being around other poets. Reading in public is like getting a back massage at a spa—vulnerable, a little awkward, but ultimately feels good. I’ve never been to a spa.  

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
How can we represent gender in literature without relying on anatomy or stereotypes? If language can’t represent reality, can it represent unreality? Can it create its own reality? How do trains work? What is sexy?

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
To write.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Essential– but also, the opposite of difficult– splendid, wonderful, joyous. Nobody will ever read my work as closely as an editor. Also, I’ve had the pleasure of working with some fantastic editors including the legendary Victor Coleman and of course Garry Thomas Morse who solicited Whistle Stops before it existed and sends me relevant Youtube videos whenever I need them most.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“Get rid of the fucking similes” —Victor Coleman

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
They’re very separate things. I write prose much faster than I write poetry. Most of the prose I write nowadays is about television shows I like.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
Deadlines are the best. If I have a deadline, I’ll get shit done. If I don’t, I’ll write when I feel like it (which is usually one poem a week).

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Other poems.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Paprika.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I like stand-up comedy, particularly Louis CK, Maria Bamford, Stewart Lee, and John Mulaney. They all have a really good sense of rhythm and timing that has probably influenced my work.

Also nature documentaries narrated by David Attenborough. Also Beyonce’s Lemonade. Also animation (Over the Garden Wall, Adventure Time, Rick and Morty). Now I’m not sure if I’m listing influences or just things I like.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Make a video game.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Pastry Chef.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
There were things I wanted to read that didn’t exist yet… like poems about my specific boyfriend.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Throaty Wipes by Susan Holbrook is pretty great. Oh, and Waters Of by Billie Chernicoff. Westworld counts as a film to me even though it’s technically a television show, so Westworld. Also Louis CK’s Horace and Pete, which is also technically a show.

20 - What are you currently working on?
A series of poems on the mating dances of tropical birds and how that relates to gender and performativity and theatre and modern sex. I’m still figuring it out.  

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Open Book : my final two columns, part one:

My nearly-decade's worth of columns for Open Book come to an end! My penultimate column is now up, and features three poets worth paying attention to: Emily Izsak, Sarah MacDonnell and Faizal Deen. Only one more column to go!

Monday, March 20, 2017

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Daniela Olszewska



Daniela Olszewska [photo credit: R. Scott Pfledderer] is the author of three full-length collections of poetry: cloudfang : : cakedirt (Horse Less Press, 2012), True Confessions of An Escapee From The Capra Facility For Wayward Girls (Spittoon Press, 2013), and Citizen J (Artifice Books, 2013). With Carol Guess, she is the co-author of How To Feel Confident With Your Special Talents (Black Lawrence Press, 2014) and Human-Ghost Hybrid Project (Black Lawrence Press, forthcoming 2017).

1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book had little to no impact on my life. I think this was a good thing. If my life had changed, I suspect it would have negatively affected my writing processes. My experience is that all the writing I’ve ever done feels the same, but it probably doesn’t look that way from the outside.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I have always been interested in poetry, but I started out really wanting to be a fiction writer.  I enrolled in “Fiction Writing Workshop I” as an undergraduate, but I almost flunked out because I couldn’t produce the 20 plus pages a week required by the program. I would work all week, but I was sloth-slow. I would bring in a two paragraph lyrical description of, like, a bat flying across a winter city skyline ib and everyone was like, “Um, this is pretty, but it’s not really a story…” During a midterm review, my fiction workshop instructor politely suggested I sign up for a poetry class next semester because my grade in the fiction workshop was not going to be high enough to allow me to move on to the “Fiction Writing Workshop II.”

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I usually start a new project as soon as I’ve finished the previous one. Almost always, I start with a definitive project in mind. Almost always, about of the way into the process, the writing announces to me that it is going to be something different from what I had intended.

Usually, the first and final drafts are kilometers apart, formatting-wise. Usually, the first and final drafts are only meters apart, content-wise.

Throughout the day, I’ll record lines or phrases in my notebook or smartphone. Ideally, at the end of the day, I go home and incorporate those lines or phrases into my work. Often, the line that was brilliant at 9 am on the CTA doesn’t still feel brilliant at 10 pm post-work and chores. I try not to erase any of my notes, just in case.

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I usually start out writing smaller pieces, but my intention is almost always to eventually make a book or chapbook. I don’t like having “loose” poems. I definitely prefer for all of them to have friends and family. Also, I received a BA and an MFA in creative writing, so I have been trained to think and write in terms of book-length projects (which, I don’t think, is a bad thing....).

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
For the first, um, eight or so years of my writing life, I loathed doing readings because, like many writers, I am kind of shy and awkward. Also, like many writers, I felt that my writing worked better on the page than in voice. However, over the past few years, I’ve (finally) developed more of a sense of performance and I have (finally) learned how to read in a manner that is relatively entertaining. This is another way of saying that I (finally) learned to take up about ½-¾ of my allotted time, to not spend more than one sentence “setting up” a poem, and to recognize that a live audience usually wants to hear the poems that include references to sex, drugs, or cats.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I like and respect  lit theory and political theory and most kinds of theory. My hope is that this like and respect bleeds into my writing. I think my work deals with a variety of concerns that could be called political, but should really just be called human... My guess is that my work doesn’t answer any questions. My guess is that my work, at best, adds addendums to the questions that are already being asked.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
The role of the writer in the larger culture is just to be a person who writes (duh). I think it’s good that we currently have D-list celebrity writers and professor writers and punk rock writers and recluse writers and all of that. It’s a good thing that there seems to be, like, forty different options, currently, for how to be a writer. I think it is important for everyone in the US to do what they can to resist the current administration, but I don’t think the onus is on writers to resist any more than anyone else.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
The process of working with an editor or “just” a reader giving feedback has always been essential to me. I find that outside perspectives are necessary for any type of writing I am planning on sharing with people other than myself. Much thanks to everyone who has ever consented to edit or give feedback on my work.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“Do whatever you want.” 

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to collaboration)? What do you see as the appeal?
For the first few years of my poetry life, I was a purist (fascist). Now, it is easier for me to write in different genres.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I have never had a routine, even when I was in school and had writing deadlines. Sometimes, I write for hours a day. Sometimes, I go a couple weeks without writing. This works for me, but I also know many, many people who have benefited immensely from keeping to a strict writing schedule.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
The writers that are really keeping me excited about writing rn are (in alphabetical order by last name): Aase Berg, Jessica Comola, Olivia Cronk, LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, Khadijah Queen, and Danielle Pafunda.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Juniper and benign neglect.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I’m influenced by riot grrl and Soviet Era propaganda posters and my darling Freshman Composition students.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
See No. 12.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Lead a protest/strike.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Proprietress of a ‘90s-themed book, CD, and clothing store.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I am not good at anything else. 

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

20 - What are you currently working on?
I am trying to write a novel (ha ha ha). It is supposed to be a post-apocalyptic tale of ex-Soviet Bloc figure skaters turned CIA agents. I hope it will turn out as a comedic work.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Morgan Parker, There are more beautiful things than Beyoncé




Another Another Autumn
in New York

When I drink anything
out of a martini glass
I feel untouched by
professional and sexual
rejection. I am a dreamer
with empty hands and
I like the chill.
I will not be attending the party
tonight, because I am
microwaving multiple Lean Cuisines
and watching Wife Swap,
which is designed to get back
at fathers, as westernized media
is often wont to do.
I don’t know
when I got so punk rock
but when I catch
myself in the mirror I
feel stronger. So when
at five in the afternoon
something on my TV says
time is not on your side
I don’t give any
shits at all. Instead I smoke
a joint like I’m
a teenager and eat a whole
box of cupcakes.
Stepping on leaves I get
first-night thrill.
Confuse the meanings
of castle and slum, exotic
and erotic. I bless
the dark, tuck
myself into a canyon
of steel. I breathe
dried honeysuckle
and hope. I live somewhere
imaginary.

I’ve been enjoying the vulnerability and swagger of Brooklyn, New York poet Morgan Parker’s There are more beautiful things than Beyoncé (Tin House Books, 2017), a pop-culture mélange of daring, playful and fiercely smart lyrics. There are elements of Parker’s There are more beautiful things than Beyoncé that are reminiscent of some of the earlier work of Toronto poet Lynn Crosbie (best evidenced through her selected poems, Queen Rat [see my review of such here]), for their shared mix of contemporary pop culture, vulnerability, bravado and first-person flâneuse. As Parker writes to open “Poem on Beyoncé’s Birthday”: “Drinking cough syrup from a glass shaped / Like your body I wish was mine but as dark / As something in my mind telling me / I’m not woman enough for these days […]”

I find poems engaging contemporary pop culture, whether this collection or even Sarah Blake’s Kanye West-inspired Mr. West (Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2015) [see my review of such here] far more compelling than poetry collections centred around historical cultural figures (The Beatles, for example). Where some of those other collections engage with a kind of nostalgia, Parker, through writing Beyoncé, Drake and Michelle Obama (among others), instead engage with more contemporary matters, such as how it is to be black and female in America, circling out into larger issues of the price of fame, negotiating love, sex, friendships and other engagements, composing a larger canvas of studies on how to simply live and be in the world. The openness and vulnerabilities displayed in Parker’s poems are quite striking, even as she plays with familiar tropes in fresh ways, such as her poem “13 Ways of Looking at a Black Girl,” riffing off Wallace Stevens’ oft-altered “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” (from his 1923 debut collection, Harmonium), that includes: “I am hungry  for myself […]” There is even a riff on Canadian writer Lawrence Hill’s 2007 novel (and subsequent miniseries), The Book of Negroes, in her own poem of the same name, that includes: “This book is uncorrected proof. You read it / on your eyelids. You sleep under it. // You give it away. You tear out whole chapters. / You say you read it but you didn’t.” The third poem in her triptych reads:

You see the commercial on BET
while you’re painting your nails.

The women are only crying.
The slave cabins are dull. You’re trying

to text this dude: Negro, please,
why sleep when the world so bad.

For him you would be pumice shined to pearl.
He makes you wanna write your name.

Everybody has an opinion.
You shiver and it is permission.

You are beautiful because you’re funny.
You are alive because you’re a question.

This is a poetry collection that holds a great deal of wisdom and lively energy (and one that is clearly improved through live performance), and was an absolute delight to read. One can only imagine (and hope) that Beyoncé herself was equally charmed.