In conjunction with editor Rachel Hildebrandt’s special folio for Drunken Boat, we present an interview with her here conducted by Jeanne Bonner.
Rachel Hildebrandt has published both fiction and nonfiction works in translation, including Staying Human by Katharina Stegelmann (Skyhorse) and Herr Faustini Takes a Trip by Wolfgang Hermann (KBR Media). Her upcoming translations include Fade to Black by Zoë Beck (Weyward Sisters, Winter 2017) and Havarie by Merle Kroeger (Unnamed Press, Spring 2017). She recently launched a new literary venture, Weyward Sisters, which publishes translated crime and noir fiction by contemporary female authors from Germany, Switzerland and Austria. With degrees in art history and historic preservation, Rachel spent a year in Dresden, Germany, as a Fulbright scholar before working as a freelance historical consultant and eventually transitioning to literary translation.
Jeanne Bonner: What are you translating now?
Rachel Hildebrandt: I am currently working on Zoë Beck’s 2015 novel, Fade to Black (Schwarzblende).
JB: What linguistic challenges does this text pose?
RH: Zoë’s German prose is very crisp and clean, which means the transition to English is a fairly smooth one. However, all of her novels are set in Great Britain, which presents a challenge for me as an American translator to capture the distinct resonance of UK English. Since Fade to Black is set in contemporary London, I find myself questioning my selection of idioms and general terms on a regular basis. Oh, right, we call them trash cans, but they call them rubbish bins. That kind of thing. This book will be published in the U.S. by Weyward Sisters Publishing, so I am also working with the awareness that many of the readers will Americans. Fortunately for me, Zoë spent many years in Great Britain, so she has a very good grasp of the balance the English needs to have. My goal is to make the text feel enough British, due to its setting, while also localizing it a little for U.S. readers.
Since voice and style are so important when it comes to fiction, I always want to know early on if the text “sounds” right to the author. Can they hear their own voices echoing through my English sentences?
JB: How does it differ from what you might have been translating earlier this year or a year ago?
RH: Last year, I was mainly working on a variety of literary fiction and literary crime samples that I was sending out to publishers. Then in the fall, I completed a quirky, philosophical novella, Wolfgang Hermann’s Herr Faustini Takes a Trip, which was published in December 2015. This dense, rich work was quite different in style from some of the things I had been translating, with most of the text dedicated to the protagonist’s mental spaces and thought processes. By the spring, I was working with co-translator Alex Roesch on the translation of Havarie by Merle Kroeger, which is due out next spring from Unnamed Press. An intriguing examination of the pan-European response to the refugee crises structured within the framework of a crime novel, this book won the 2016 German Crime Prize, 2nd Place. Fade to Black won the 2016 German Crime Prize, 3rd Place, which makes me feel like I have landed firmly in the literary crime and thriller genre. I am definitely not protesting, since there are some fantastic German female authors working within this context.
JB: Do you curate a body of work that involves a particular period or genre? Or is there an author you’ve translated more than once?
RH: I am a lifelong lover of mysteries and crime fiction, so perhaps it is somewhat natural that I find myself focusing more and more on this genre as time passes. I have worked with several books from the same authors, though these are in the forms of samples that are still searching for good publishing homes (though I would LOVE to be these authors’ repeat translator!). As the publisher for Weyward Sisters, which is dedicated to publishing translations of works by contemporary German-speaking female authors in the crime/noir/thriller end of the spectrum, this will be the focus of my work and output for the time being. I am not opposed to working with authors in other genres though, and will continue to actively advocate for some of the literary fiction authors I love the most.
I want to know early on if where I am going with a text resonates true with the author. Everything else is negotiable space. Once I feel I have captured that unique voice to the best of my ability, I feel free to continue with the rest of the book.
JB: What’s your approach to translating when you begin working on a new project?
RH: Since I mainly translate contemporary fiction, I especially love the contact I am able to have with many of the authors whose works I have translated. I feel especially lucky in the fact that most German speakers have very good English skills, especially authors as a group, which enables them to be actively involved in the translation process. For example, I have worked very closely with both Romy Foelck and Zoë Beck on their recent short story collections, which have been published by Weyward Sisters. Since voice and style are so important when it comes to fiction, I always want to know early on if the text “sounds” right to the author. Can they hear their own voices echoing through my English sentences? At that stage, I care less about the nuanced meaning of words than about the rhythm and cadence of the prose itself. Language is a fluid entity, and I always know in the back of my mind that I can trade out words here and there, alter sentence structures, and scoot clauses around at will. There is an infinite number of ways I can structure a story or a chapter, but not all of these will feel true and personal to the author. That is why I want to know early on if where I am going with a text resonates true with the author. Everything else is negotiable space. Once I feel I have captured that unique voice to the best of my ability, I feel free to continue with the rest of the book.
JB: Are there lines from the works you’ve translated that have remained impressed? What are they and why?
RH: From Zoe Beck’s “Still Waters,” (published in A CONTENTED MAN AND OTHER STORIES):
“We gradually forgot about Silvana and her mother and Herr Schneider. And after a few years, Silvana’s mother was nothing more than an anecdote, just like the ones our grandparents told us about how after the war everyone had thrown their copies of Mein Kampf into the Judenteich. Or about how the Judenteich had gotten its name from the fact that Jewish women had washed their clothes there many years ago. Nothing remained except the memories we didn’t wish to have.”
These lines resonate with me as someone with a background in the history and cultural resources field. History is not an objective entity. It is malleable, fluid, and vulnerable to our unreliable memories. This evocative passage reminds us that we cannot control either what we remember or what we forget, but it is these very memories that shape our characters as adults.
Under the Buenos Aires Night : interview with Argentinian independent publisher, returned exile and political activist Miguel Martínez Naón about poetry, memory, and revolution.
Miguel Martínez Naón is an Argentinian editor who forms part of the independent publisher Lamás Médula, as well as an actor, a journalist for the Paco Urondo News Agency (named after the poet and journalist Paco Urondo who became one of the disappeared during the military junta of 1976). A political rabble-rousing activist militant since his infancy, Naón has long been involved in many battles on social fronts within Argentina. Shockingly, he holds U.S. citizenship: Naón was born in 1976 to Argentinian exiles in the city of Palo Alto, California, in the ‘’free state’’ declared upon the campus of Stanford University, a cradle of counterculture of the times. But he was quickly taken from California to Mexico by his parents, and in 1984 came to his true homeland Argentina, when such a return was made possible by the re-establishment of democracy.
Miguel fights for the place of poetry, for social justice, memory and recognition of the Argentinian past. Next to literary activities, he is a member of organizations such as H.I.J.O.S, ‘’Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice Against Oblivion and Silence’’ an organization founded to reunite the stolen children who were abducted by state terror from their biological parents, who were imprisoned, deemed ‘’unfit’’ by the punishing authorities, exiled or murdered for their leftist politics. Naón is active in social organizations promoting literacy among the urban poor of Buenos Aires. He is the managing editor of a poetry series called ‘’Totem of Night’’ and wrote the poetry collection ‘’Service Station’’ (Estación de Servicio) published in 2012. His forthcoming collection of poems, “Tango Capsule’’ (Capsula de Tango) is out soon!
A very personal note on our encounter: I first met Miguel at the 2016 international poetry festival in Buenos Aires. We spoke of our parents. I told him I was researching the sinister circumstances of my late Argentinian father’s exile during the junta. Later that night, Miguel posted a picture of us together on Facebook: immediately we obtained a response from elder friends of his, including one veteran Montonero of the armed guerilla struggle who had known Desimones who had fought in the underground resistance to the regime, before being captured and made to vanish (unlike my father, an unarmed musician) We hoped one of these would turn out to be a relative. Sadly, it turned out that the brave freedom fighter Enrique Desimone of La Plata and my father were not blood-relatives.
Arturo Desimone: Because of your parents’ exile from Argentina, you were born on the campus of Stanford University, a cradle of North American counterculture in the 70s, and yet you are Argentinian, and even an Argentine nationalist of the Left according to some definitions. How did these extraordinary circumstances come about? Have you retained any memories of icons of North American counterculture? (Angela Davis, for example, among many others had a presence in Stanford) You seem very far removed from the academic animal for someone born in Stanford…
Miguel Martínez Naón: Well first of all allow me to clarify, that rather than a “nationalist of the Left” I identify as a Peronist. The term ‘’Argentine nationalist of the Left’’ could generate hefty confusion….I am Peronist, and that means, in this historical era I therefore am committed to Kirchnerismo. I am a Kirchnerist, what amounts to supporting and taking part in a greater mass-movement that does not only embrace the flagship of Peronism, but also embraces the causes of socialism and communism, and different popular movements of progressivism, with a profoundly Latin-Americanist vision. This ideological period, logically, emerged with the ascent of Nestor Kirchner to the presidency on the 25th of May from 2003 (during the time Argentina was stricken by the worst period of financial crisis in recent memory) It continued with Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s leadership. We have seen 12 years of very important battles won on the social front for Argentinians.
My parents were exiled in 1975, they were persecuted by the A.A.A (the Argentinian Anti-Communist Alliance, an intelligence agency and assassination-bureaucracy established by Isabela Martínez Peron in the 1970s in collusion with the military which later overthrew Isabela and established its own dictatorship.) Both my parents were activists in left-wing Peronism. They were artists, not soldiers: my late father was a theater director , my mother Noemi an actress and textile artist. Unlike some of their comrades, they were not in the armed wings of Peronism like the ERP (People’s Revolutionary Army). I returned to the United States in 2001 and in 2004, and there could learn more about that culture (or, more accurately, indeed ‘’Counter-culture’’) but I was never able to perceive this 60s subversive counter-culture as anything more than a series of frozen artifacts and large pieces in a museum, like a movement that remained in the past. If we are in fact seeing a resurgence of that (1970s North American) counterculture, quite often its manifestations are anachronistic and, I would go so far as to even call them decadent. I believe the political clime in the USA to be an even more hostile context than it was.
AD: I know you as a passionate appreciator of the exiled Argentinian poet and revolutionary Juan Gelman, and I’ve even listened to your reciting poems of his from memory, on certain occasions in the late night of Buenos Aires. What place does Gelman, the poet and militant, occupy in your life as a literary editor and as a militant ideologue and activist?
Naón: Beyond any doubt, Juan Gelman remains one of the greatest exponents of Argentinian and Latin American poetry. I began learning about his work and enjoying him when I was a child. My parents would recite his poems and quote him and from hearing it so often I began to learn it by heart. There are also songs with his lyrics, played by the Cedrón Quartet (a tango orchestra from Buenos Ares.) I would steal his verses and adapt them for theater, acting them out on the stage. I also would carry his books in my back-pack when I went to political actions, when I began participating in the movement H.I.J.O.S during the turn of the 1990s.
Gelman’s poetry also transformed into food, because I would earn my living by reciting his poems on the urban buses as a child, then I would pass around a hat for donations.
I carry Gelman in my blood. Some of his books I like more than others. His collection The Poems of Sidney West is one of my favourites. One way or another he has always influenced me and my experience of life, and not only as a poet — also as an activist. I have always recommended young friends to read the Juan Gelman book titled “Counter-Defeat: Montoneros and the Lost Revolution (‘Contraderrota: Montoneros y la
revolución perdida) wherein he converses with Roberto Mero about his experience as a guerrilla fighter inside the leadership of the Montoneros guerrilla organization. An excellent read.
AD: When Gelman died in 2014, the government led by President Cristina Kirchner declared four days of national mourning (all were free from work etc.) Where were you during those days? Does the existence of such a ‘holiday’ set aside for mourning prove that Argentina has changed its way of treating both poets and those who resisted dictatorship?
Naón: That very night I was at the house of a girlfriend who is also my comrade in the movement, and when we heard the news it was a very sad occasion for us…then she asked me to recite poems of his from memory, and I remember her filming it, the next day we showed this to our good friends. That night we drank a lot of wine and toasted to him. The day after, despite how it weighed upon us, I was moved to find his face on the front page of every newspaper. I believe that also determined for me that there had been a real change of the era, a shift in attitudes.
In the 1990s we had been forgotten, and Gelman would have lingered in oblivion and died forgotten and unrecognized. We owe much to the massive paradigm-shifts that occurred during the government of Cristina Kirchner. Her government accompanied and dignified the great artists of our country, not only poets. The Ministry of Culture (nonexistent in Argentina prior to 2003-Ed.) distinguished great artists like folk-singer Leonardo Favio, novelist Maria Elena Walsh, pop-singer Spinetta, the poet Alberto Szpunberg also received an accolade. Within the Ministry of Culture they installed a library that was entirely dedicated to poetry, and which is named after Juan Gelman and includes 80 major authors of our literature. These editions were distributed in all public schools. All this is entirely contrary to what the current anti-government of president Macri (elected in November 2015) is enacting at present: Macri is destroying all that legacy, making those books disappear. No one knows where they are now.
AD: You have marched in demonstrations alongside the May Plaza Mothers, who today are being persecuted by the government. Before then you participated in H.I.J.O.S. (Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice, Against Forgetfulness and Against Silence) You are also a friend of the children of poets and writers who were assassinated or made to vanish under the military junta. Can you tell of one or two great moments you witnessed while inside these movements?
Naón: There were many great moments that I experienced as a member of H.I.J.O.S. To make a synthesis of the experience, I would say that altogether there were two fundamentally important things always present: first was our place to meet each other, to speak of what was happening to us. Not only were there children of the disappeared, there also children of murdered, of imprisoned subversives and, obviously, children of exiles. That is why I was there. We were able to see the others’ eyes, to hug each other and to keep each other company. This was crucial in that time.
The 1990s was a brutal time, we really suffered from repression, from marginalization. We were persecuted and stigmatized. That was internally acknowledged. In our efforts towards the outside world, we were able to make visible the scope of impunity (the 1990s were the era of ‘’Amnesty’’ declared under the Carlos Menem presidency towards the culprits of State terror during the junta regime).
We did this by way of the escrache, an action that consisted of going to the house of a former state-terrorist (all of them had been granted unconditional liberty) There we would gather the neighbors to come out, we would block the street, while we publicly denounced under the slogan ‘’If there is no justice, there is still escrache’’ Escrache is a word from Lunfardo (the immigrant dialect of Buenos Aires) that means precisely this: to denounce, to repudiate.
Obviously it was not easy to do. We almost always ended up in the police station, there were always wounded comrades.
AD: Gelman wrote Dibaxu, a collection of poems in the Sephardi language (also known as ‘’Judeo-Spanish’’ or Ladino, the language of the Mediterranean-origin Jews) According to our friend Alberto Spzunberg (who is among the poets you have published and most promoted) his close friend Juan Gelman could only have intended the writing of Dibaxu in Sephardi language as some sort of show of virtuosity, while Gelman refused to look towards his own, true roots and identity as an Ashkenazy Jew descended from Russian Jewish immigrants to Argentina. You, Miguel Naon certainly are descended from Sephardic Jewish people.
AD: What is the significance of Dibaxu for you as both a descendant of Spain’s exiled Jews and an Argentinian born in exile, to exiles? Does the collection offer some form of recognition or even empowerment to your roots? Is there a possible theme of identity politics in Dibaxu
that you can potentially connect with in a different manner from how you connect to other works of Gelman that you know by heart?
Naón: With regard to the first point, Alberto’s comment on the matter, I believe we better ask him, and I would be very interested in knowing why he thinks that. That collection I also first discovered in the shelves of my parents. My mother’s surname is Naón, of Sephardi origin. And indeed, the book fascinates us, and moves us, but our Jewish roots remain very far from us indeed.
Neither my mother nor I have practiced the religion, nor have we ever taken part in that collectivity, so in a certain way I am very inauthentic as a Jewish person, or to be very frank, I am just ignorant.
(*For more sephardi, here is a link to my translations of Denise León, a contemporary Argentine poet from Tucuman who writes in Spanish and in the Sephardi language of her grandmother, in the Adirondack Review http://www.theadirondackreview.com/deniseleon.html)
AD: In a 1963 interview given by Ernesto Guevara in Algiers, the Argentinian-Cuban guerrilla-leader summed up his view as to the motor of socialism: “Economic socialism without a communist morality does not interest me. We fight misery, but at the same time we fight against alienation. One of the crucial objectives of Marxism is to make the principle of interest, the factor individual self-interest disappear altogether, to eradicate that and the profit-incentive as psychological motor in the human being. Marx was as preoccupied with the economic facts as with their repercussion in consciousness. If communism is not concerned with conscience and consciousness, then it becomes a method for the distribution of of goods, but it will never be a revolutionary morale’’ (from the interview with Jean Daniel, L’Éxpres, 1963). What, then, would be the relation between that expression of Guevara and poetry, between political (often violent) polarization and the power of poetry to oppose or deactivate the language of regimes such as the neo-liberal regime or other forms of abusive authority (such as Stalinism)? If there is a power in the art of great politically-engaged militant poets (Szpunberg, Gelman, Vallejo, Violeta Parra, Elvira Hernandez to name a few) as well as the art of politically un-involved but nonetheless great poets (including even poets who harbor right-wing reactionary opinion), does their art function all the same as a force to counter that very alienation towards which Guevara aimed his rifle? Or, should we draw a firm distinction between Alienation as defined by the romantics and Alienation as defined by Marxists?
Naón: So many questions at once (laughs). Yes, poetry is always the counter-force to such alienation, regardless of who writes it or what party they belong to. I can cite this verse from Gelman who says
“with this poem you will not take the power’’ he says
‘’with these verses you will not make the Revolution’’ he says
‘’not even with thousands of verses will you make the Revolution’’ he says
he sits at the table and writes
That is only a fragment of that great poem “Confidences.”
However, even though we will never be able to seize the political powers using poetry, poetry is a mighty warrior (Miguel says ‘’guerrera’’ female of ‘’warrior’’ in Spanish) against that form of alienation Che was talking about — El Che, who we could see as a poet in the guise of warrior. Alberto Szpunberg has pointed out accurately that for poetry to be of political significance, it is not of any major importance for the poetry itself to have a social urgency or societal ‘’relevance’’ in its themes or content, so much as for the poet to have a certain relationship with his people — the latter is far more important.
I am already so very tired of assemblies of poets who believe that by reading their poems they are doing a revolutionary act. That, too, is pure alienation, pure ego that fulfills the function of cooling their consciences. What would be worthwhile, however, would be for the poet to be present in all the social political manifestations, at strikes and demonstrations next to the workers, the excluded and marginalized, in militancy. If you go to a place where people are dying from hunger, shitting hunger then of course they don’t want a poem by Gelman or whoever, they want to get the bread, they need jobs. I’ve been saying this a long time and without any undervaluation or underestimation of poetry. And if the poet does not give a fuck about that reality, then OK, its fine then to stay home and calmly write his complete oeuvre. But the crux of the matter is to not be an impostor, don’t you think so?
AD: In your role as an editor at the independent publishing house Lamás Médula, would you publish a writer who is not an activist and not politically involved, who is committed neither to the Left nor to any progressive cause? Would you publish an author whose aesthetic may be interesting or radical, even if that author had political positions similar to those of (for example) a Jorge Luis Borges?
Naón: Of course I would. As a publisher, Lamás Médula has no determined political editorial line, we are just a wonderful team of friends and comrades who value literature in itself. I only direct one specific collection, the publisher is much bigger in terms of its branches.
Personally, I believe that literature in general and poetry in particular (obviously speaking here only of the good literature, good poetry) is in itself revolutionary. Any true work of art is. Whoever the author may be, the art-work stands alone.
If we can manage to get the books into the hands of young people and kids who start to get interested in poetry, then we already are realizing a little revolutionary act, that will always be in polar opposition to the interests of fascism and of the right.
AD: Both the anti-peronist, anti-communist military junta, as well as Peronism in its right-wing strains, seem to have contained strongly anti-semitic elements. The Argentinian leftist-Peronist author Rodolfo Walsh, in his book of investigative journalism ‘’The Satanowsky Case’’ took risks in angering peronists. Peron allowed for the Nazis to enjoy a safe refuge in Argentina, extending the open-borders policy to them, as well as allowing Jewish immigration (Argentina enjoys the third largest Jewish community in the world) Here in Argentina, the Jewish immigrant population inhabits the immigrant nexus together with the Lebanese, Syrian and German immigrant communities. Does all this not result in internal conflict for you, the descendant of Jewish immigrants and at the same time a militant Peronist — does all this not lead to a dilemma? Are these identities even to be reconciled?
Naón: Well, as I told you before I do not profess Judaism, I do not feel directly identified with Judaism. Let’s break this down step by step: in the first place, Marcos Satanoswky was murdered in the year 1957, under the dictatorship of Aramburu, which had overthrown Peron in ’55. It was a bloodthirsty dictatorship that outlawed Peronism while it executed an infinity of persons. Rodolfo Walsh was himself a peronist. What you said about Peron with regard to the Nazis is absolutely erroneous, that is an echoe of the misinformation campaign conducted by the Yankees and the British to libel and undermine him and Evita. While undoubtedly true that Nazis managed to get into Argentina, these elements lived in hiding in the South, they did not count on the support of General Peron, unlike the Jewish community in Argentina (the Jewish immigrants received official governmental support, approval.) These were campaigns to defame him, just as occurs today with the media conglomerate of the Clarín newspaper in its campaigns against the recent government of Nestor and Cristina Kirchner. Therefore, I suffer from no such “conflicted identity,” in the first place because I’m an atheist, and second because the Jews who were active and who are active today in Peronism are many in number. In fact, the most recent military dictatorship, that of 1976, orchestrated the disappearance of thousands of Peronist Jews.
AD: You work as a journalist for the Paco Urondo News Agency. This agency bears the name of that great poet and journalist who was assassinated (or disappeared) during the last military dictatorship. In what way does Urondo and his life provide a model for you as journalists?
Naón: we greatly admire Paco, as a journalist, a poet, as a militant, as an intellectual, as a human being, in every sense, and we pay homage to him every day in our own reporting work. We do militant journalism, and every day we are still learning from him, he’s always present, in a way resembling what I’ve told you about Gelman before, he lives with me in my quotidian existence.
AD: Miguel, you’re a United States citizen because of reasons of exile. With Trump as the new president (and, before him under Obama and under Clinton) the situation of refugees’ rights has grown ever more complicated since your parents were able to secure a refuge during Argentina’s tyranny. What would you want to tell US citizens and readers about your reaction to their new president? Did you vote for Trump or for Hillary at the embassy?
Naón: the time that I spent in the United States (here I refer to years as a grown-up, because after my birth we quickly moved to Mexico) from 2004 to 2007 I participated actively in left-wing party called “Socialism and Liberation’’ and was also a member of the coalition ANSWER (Act Now Against War and End Racism) There I could become more familiar with the problems of immigrants. In fact I was also part of the historic strike-demonstration on May 1st of 2006 that was named ‘’One day without immigrants” I have never voted, neither over there nor here. I have no clear message to give them. I am disheartened with the outcome, just as I am with what is happening here with Macri. I can still not believe those same Yankee citizens as I knew them would commit mass suicide by choosing such sinister representatives. The source of what is happening in the USA has to do with the fact that the vote is not a legal obligation for all citizens. That causes, or is related to, a culture of intellectual void and emptiness, there is a disdain for debate and for polemic and for political participation. The majority has a burnt, scorched conscience. Not all of them, but certainly the majority of US citizens. But the role of the media is also surely of immense influence in shaping that culture of anti-intellectualism.
Here in Argentina, we are unfortunately also governed by idiots, by puppets of an international system that is macabre, but we are able to respond with a very resilient social movement. We possess the means to resist.
AD: Would you today contemplate armed struggle against state terrorism?
Naón: Absolutely not. Today’s struggle is through the syndicates, it is territorial, there is a democratic mechanism through which elections are organized, there has not been a coup. Macri was elected by votes. The movement has a leader — that’s Cristina — there are youths mobilizing in the streets. It would be foolish to even think of armed resistance at this stage.
Arturo Desimone, Arubian-Argentinian writer and visual artist, was born in 1984 on the island Aruba which he inhabited until the age of 22, when he emigrated to the Netherlands. He is currently based in Argentina (a country two of his ancestors left during the 1970s) while working on a long fiction project about childhoods, diasporas, islands and religion. Desimone’s articles, poetry and short fiction pieces have previously appeared in CounterPunch, Círculo de Poesía(Spanish) Acentos Review, New Orleans Review, DemocraciaAbierta, BIM Magazine, Knot-Lit. A play he wrote won a prize for young immigrant authors in Amsterdam in 2011, and published in the world-lit journal of University of Istanbul. His translations of poetry have appeared in the Blue Lyra Review andAdirondack Review.
When Madeleine Thien first kindly agreed to do this interview in May 2016, her novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing was soon to be published in Canada and England, but there was as yet no publisher for it in the US. Since I was unable to get a copy of the novel in the States, she sent me a galley PDF. I started reading the novel PDF when I was in South Africa in July, but I was so taken with it, I knew I had to read it in its proper book form. When I came back to the States in August, I ordered the novel internationally and waited for it to arrive. By the time I’d received my copy and started reading it, Do Not Say We Have Nothing was on its way to being something big, and deservedly so. It is a structurally complex novel that is large in scope and heart, a novel very much for our times.
Now that Do Not Say We Have Nothing is available in the US, I’m very happy that Americans will have a chance to read more from this gifted and generous writer.
This interview was conducted by email.
SB: We met through the City University of Hong Kong’s MFA program in the summer of 2011. Your novel Dogs at the Perimeter had just been released. I was still haunted by my own trip to Cambodia in 1997, and loved the way you captured that haunting quality in your novel. I read recently that you started Do Not Say We Have Nothing as a way to explore some of the unresolved questions from Dogs at the Perimeter, allowing yourself a more expansive canvas. Can you comment a bit more on what those questions are and the initial process of writing Do Not Say We Have Nothing?
MT: At first, I thought I was tracing ideas backwards, particularly the trajectory of Marxist thought in Asia, and the relationship between Pol Pot’s Cambodia and Mao Zedong’s China. One of Mao’s high level military intelligence officers, Kang Sheng, was instrumental in aligning Chinese support for the Khmer Rouge.
As the novel grew, I found I was returning to a very particular unresolved question in Dogs at the Perimeter, the complexity and pain of survival; how people live on in the immediate aftermath as well as the long aftermath; how people learn to silence themselves, to speak, to be silent again, to speak. That survival is a life’s work, a double helix of forgetting and remembering.
The two novels are different shapes in time and space. The Cambodian genocide took place over approximately four years; the political campaigns in China spanned decades. 2016 is a very particular moment. Mao Zedong was in power for 27 years, until his death in 1977; and it’s been 27 years since the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations. I think, in Do Not Say We Have Nothing, there’s a counting up and a counting down of time, an effort to make visible patterns in history, the idea of the Year Zero or the Ground Zero, these rifts in society which we keep recreating, and to which we keep returning.
“I found that listening to Bach or Prokofiev or Shostakovich was enriching, the music opened up my imagination and my conceptual awareness in unexpected ways. The structures of their symphonies, partitas, sonatas, variations, etc., all worked their way into my consciousness as ways of thinking and forms of narrative. Arrivals, departures, and returns.”
SB: While I was reading Do Not Say We Have Nothing, I couldn’t sleep well at night. The scenes from the Cultural Revolution — those last days Sparrow, Kai, and Zhuli were together and the aftermath of that that time were unsettling and hard to read. I hung out with you for a few weeks for three summers when you were working on this novel, and you were always so committed to teaching and being part of the MFA program. Now I wonder how you separated the intensity and singularity of the world of your novel with your own life while you were writing it.
But I found that listening to Bach or Prokofiev or Shostakovich was enriching, the music opened up my imagination and my conceptual awareness in unexpected ways. The structures of their symphonies, partitas, sonatas, variations, etc., all worked their way into my consciousness as ways of thinking and forms of narrative. Arrivals, departures, and returns.
MT: Oh, Sybil. This is a very moving question to me. While I was teaching, the world of the novel never really left my consciousness. China was unfolding in my imagination, anchored to things I was seeing in the present. The ardour and the desires of the students, the politics of the moment, the everyday things in Hong Kong that go unnoticed, the relentless forces of centralized power: all these things were part of my mental landscape. The past is written all over the present, nothing has gone away in Hong Kong, in China, or in our societies, even when the past is unremarked upon.
It’s also true that the most difficult writing was done in near isolation, often in China where I would work 12 to 14 hour days, and then wander through the streets at night. During those intensive writing times, I never fully emerged from the world of the novel. Sparrow, Zhuli, and Kai were always with me.
SB: The use of music as the architecture for the novel helped me navigate its complex narrative structure. Can you describe how you came to this narrative structure? Was this something that helped scaffold the novel for you, or did that come with later revisions?
MT: Scaffolding is the perfect word. The structures came very naturally, perhaps because I was listening to so much music as I was writing, and I had never done this before. I used to think that I needed complete, or near complete, silence to write. But I found that listening to Bach or Prokofiev or Shostakovich was enriching, the music opened up my imagination and my conceptual awareness in unexpected ways. The structures of their symphonies, partitas, sonatas, variations, etc., all worked their way into my consciousness as ways of thinking and forms of narrative. Arrivals, departures, and returns.
SB: I love your use of the nonverbal forms of language in the novel. Were you able to integrate the nonverbal forms from the beginning or did that come at a later stage in the manuscript?
MT: They were there almost from the beginning. I think I rewrote the first 40 to 50 pages multiple times, and then, once Marie became clear, the nonverbal forms of language became inseparable from her — mathematical equations, Chinese ideograms, even the shape of the conductor’s hand movements as she or he counts time. I was struck by descriptions of musicians and composers sitting down to read scores, as if they were text. And, like text, the reader hears everything — the voice, the music — in his or her mind. I think the photographs came later. They became part of Marie’s archive, when initially they had been part of mine.
“My first encounters with classical music were all through ballet and dance and so, to me, music has always been intertwined with movement, with dance and the narrative of dance. The challenge was using language to express the dimensionality and physicality of music.”
SB: I read that you first went to university on a dance scholarship. As much as your novel “reads” musically, I can also read it as a dance — dance of language, characters, place, and time. Some of my favorite authors like Paul Bowles and Thomas Bernhard come from a musical background. Has your study of dance influenced your writing?
MT: I think it has, and I think, potentially, the more I allow it to inflect my writing, the more it will. My instincts are gestural and tonal, and this is evident in my previous books, particularly Dogs at the Perimeter. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a bit of a departure. It’s epic in scale, and even though it’s not linear, it’s more linear than any other work I’ve ever made.
My first encounters with classical music were all through ballet and dance and so, to me, music has always been intertwined with movement, with dance and the narrative of dance. The challenge was using language to express the dimensionality and physicality of music.
SB: I remember watching Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould in Washington, DC in 1994, and reading Bernhard’s The Loser around the same time. There’s a mystique about Gould as an artist. Besides his music, did that mystique as a musician inform your portrayal of any of the characters?
MT: I read a lot about Glenn Gould as well. I love his particularities, and even though I didn’t borrow his eccentricities for my characters, his life gave me freedom to imagine their relationships with music as highly specific and highly personal. It moves me a great deal when musicians tell me that they recognize this intimacy with music, that the novel describes something that is nearly inexpressible not only about creating and performing music, but the quality of devotion itself. I feel so relieved and happy. It is as miraculous to me as it is to them.
SB: We became friends through the amazing low residency MFA program at City University of Hong Kong. Its closure was heartbreaking to all of us, but you were able to articulate our pain through an article in The Guardian linking the decision to closing the program to Hong Kong’s increasing limiting of free expression. I can see now that as you were finishing your novel, this closure would be even more troubling. The Umbrella Movement is yet another note, a response or an echo to Tiananmen, of the Cultural Revolution, of the Communist Revolution. It is another chapter in the Book of Records. You also mentioned our program and its closing in your Acknowledgements. What advice do you have to artists who find themselves unable to express themselves?
“If a regime or place or ideology wants you to disappear, to live and to continue creating is a form of resistance, especially if it is done with integrity.”
MT: This is the most difficult question of all. There’s no question that my reading of events at City University of Hong Kong was informed by the many years I had been thinking about a longer Chinese history. Deep, transformative, and troubling changes to society never happen overnight. The conditions for those change are introduced incrementally, at the margins, in unexpected places. The disappearance of a writing program is very marginal, but it was part of a wider shift in society, and a narrowing down of forms of expression.
Censorship and the closing down of expression take many forms, and one of these is the creation of conditions in which people begin to self-censor. We have this in North America, too. There are certain subjects people will avoid; topics in which we fear we may be out of sync with our peers, friends, families, and social groups. It’s easier to express opinions that will result in social validation, rather than social opprobrium.
In China during the Cultural Revolution, there are many moving stories detailing how people hid things, or created in secret, or made use of the arts available to them in order to refine their craft and their skills, so that later on, when they had a different kind of freedom of expression, they had the technical ability to do what their imaginations desired. The artist Xu Bing is a powerful example of this. Shostakovich, who lived during Stalin’s Terror and through multiple purges, said something to his students that I’ve always remembered: “Work, play. You’re living here, in this country, and you must see everything as it really is. Don’t create illusions. There’s no other life. There can’t be any. Just be thankful that you’re still allowed to breathe.” And I think this pragmatism is very important. If a regime or place or ideology wants you to disappear, to live and to continue creating is a form of resistance, especially if it is done with integrity. Art has the capacity to say multiple things, to camouflage ideas and ways of being. Nothing stays the same forever. It’s the line from Bei Dao’s poem, “Remember what I say: Not everything will pass.”
Moss Angel Witchmonstr is a feral transsexual living in Oregon. She writes books the size of your hand or bigger. She lives beautifully among the ashes of her respectability, which she finally burned in the deepest heart of the sun earlier this year. Her newest project, Sea-Witch can be read online (patreon.com/monstr) or in print form — Sea-Witch vol. 1 is out from 2fast2house/oh! map books in January.
BBF: Can you share a bit about your creative practice? What is your origin story as a writer? What are some of your other passions, practices and ideas?
MAW: My creative practice is mostly cathartic and unstructured. I write when I feel like I can write, and do so mostly with whatever is at hand. Most of Sea-Witch’s first drafts were written on my phone in the iPhone notes app. I have on a number of occasions written pieces while in the midst of or while recovering from panic attacks or breakdowns of some kind. Sometimes, while in the middle of a particularly emotionally harrowing experience the only way I can feel okay is to pull out my phone and write about how Strawberry-Witch feels or whatever.
My origin story as a writer is that I started out writing in high school as an incredibly oblivious person who didn’t know who she was at all. I even thought I was a boy. Go figure. Anyway, I wrote a lot of things that were sort of pretending to be song lyrics for bands I liked. I started writing and playing music in college and did seven years of writing and recording and playing and touring. Trying to write some kind of absurdist folk-pop concept albums that never quite came together. Then after grad school, I got involved in a literary scene in Chicago because my ex-wife was in an MFA program there. The scene at the time had a lot of folks writing flash fiction and prose poems and things that were somewhere between those two things and that was kind of what I locked into. I was writing a lot of neo-surrealist prose poetry stuff. My second book, Sara or the Existence of Fire was my first attempt at linking surreal prose poetry into something that was kind of like my concept albums. It had a main character, Sara, which was definitely me allowing myself to be projected into a sort of idealized feminine version of myself. Imagining my post-transition self. Sea-Witch is sort of taking the little bit of world-building I did with that and making it the main focus. I love arcane worlds and unknowable mythologies and Sea-Witch has been my chance to let myself build a world that has all of my observations and impulses about our world and my experiences of it embedded in its structure.
I also love doing visual art, especially design. I’ve designed all my books. As I’ve become less and less attached to genre I’ve become more and more attached to focusing on the book as a form that I can create every aspect of.
BBF: Can you describe your relationship to the occult? Do you have any daily practices?
MAW: My relationship to the occult is similarly cathartic and unstructured. I create my own rules and practices and break them as often as I follow them. I consider art to be holy and I consider the holy to be art and I don’t make a lot of distinction about whether I’m doing something for aesthetic or spiritual reasons. I love sigils, which in my practice aren’t derived from specific intentions but instead are just symbols that come to me fully formed. I do a lot of stick n poke tattooing on my own body and these sigils are the first things I did that with. A lot of my personal magical sigils are in my books. Tattooing is a holy practice to me. I also love rituals, and I love sacrifice. My occult practice is inherently anarchist and anticapitalist and the most valued thing to sacrifice is your own respectability. We live in a world that runs on respectability and sacrificing something that is so valuable to that world is an incredibly holy act. This is why I have tattoos on my hands, one on my face. This is why I plan to change my last name to Monstr soon. Being other and outside is a position of occult power and a position from which you are least likely to be tainted by the whims of those people who control and manipulate the world around us on an everyday basis. The elite. They can get you anywhere, though. You have to be always vigilant.
Sometimes I like going into the woods and building bonfires. Sometimes I like eating acid or mushrooms. Sometimes I like fucking another trans girl in a particularly holy way. Sometimes I like building something intricate and complicated and meaningful. All of these things are beautiful and sacred for me. I need them to get by and feel okay with the universe or whatever name for it I have decided fits at that moment.
BBF: What do you think about the relationship between the personal and political? How does this show up in your writing, your day to day, within your relationship to the magical?
MAW: Oh wow, I think I pretty much already answered this. The political is constant, all around us. Capitalism is a totalitarian system and we are controlled by it at every turn. White supremacy, borders, prisons, colonialism, these things run our world. They are immediate and they are everywhere. How we choose to interact with them is important. Even if it’s just to survive. My relationship to the magical is about survival. I am a mentally ill person who has dealt with some very bizarre brain shit and the magical is about living in a reality I can stomach. It’s about not killing myself. My writing is probably the most concentrated version of this practice. It’s where all of these things in my head and in my life come to the finest point and manifest themselves.
It is me explaining myself and the world around me to myself and the world around me. My friend Jade made a meme that says “Capitalist ‘reality’ is a farce.” This is how I understand the world. I refuse to live in their reality other than the amount I have to, for survival.
BBF: I am very excited to have joined Patreon and become a subscriber to read your book Sea-Witch as it unfolds. I am excited to witness the process of this work, also coming out in tangible book form in January 2017. Congratulations! I am interested in some of the ways you describe this work online. The text is a multimedia work that you describe as an “occult mythology of contemporary queer transness through an anti-capitalist lens.” Can you expand on this description? How does this manifest in the work?
MAW: I think I got at some of this already, but first I want to clarify that the book coming out is only volume one of Sea-Witch. What is on the Patreon is going to be the entire series. Currently the text on the Patreon is over halfway through volume two, which probably won’t be out until late 2017 or 2018. I’m setting it up so I can keep writing this book forever. I never want to finish it.
I think mythology is the way we make sense of our world. Living as we do in the totalitarian capitalist hellscape (and if you don’t think it’s a hellscape, that is because someone is giving you the privilege to live in a way that lets you out some of the hellscape), it only makes sense that I (we?) would have a need to create a story to keep our perspective on straight. There are so many fucking head games that get played by capitalism that keep us locked in its perspective. The goal with creating a mythology against capitalism is to have a framework through which what is real and good can be valued and separated from what exists for the means of manipulation, harm and control. As for why it’s gay and trans, well, because I’m gay and trans and because capitalism hates gay and trans people and because god dammit we need some more of our own shit to call our own. I want to make this for all of the broke ass fucking crazy trans girls who barely make it through each day without killing themselves. Because I’m one of them. And because I love them so much and I know we are gods.
BBF: I am also interested in the fact that this text has multiple forms, that it accessible online a bit at a time instead of all at once and will be available as a holdable object. What made you decide to include the text both in process as well as in book form?
MAW: There’s actually another layer to it. There are the Patreon updates, which are the smallest, most immediate way to consume, then there are multiple print volumes which are the next biggest, next most immediate way to consume, and then if someone really wants to, they could wait to read the final collected edition of Sea-Witch. Who knows what year it will come out and who knows how many pages it will be, but it is my long term goal to make this happen. And then after I finish Sea-Witch I’m going to quit poetry/fiction and write a collection of experimental plays.
So, there are all these levels on which I get different amounts of material support and artistic satisfaction. I get the most material, monetary support from the Patreon, which helps me to be able to live and feed myself, but probably the least artistic satisfaction from it. I get less material support from the books, but a whole lot more artistic satisfaction. I imagine I will get the least material support and the most artistic satisfaction from the final collected version, but this is just a theory right now and I can’t prove it.
I’ve been dissatisfied with how the literature world expects me to create and release work for a while now, and so I broke up with that system and built my own. I also now only publish excerpts from Sea-Witch in literary magazines that pay me or in fun DIY projects by marginalized people (this wasn’t my policy until just recently). I don’t feel any need to donate my work to support established literary institutions, because more often than not their structure and goals don’t match up with my political values. Getting paid rules though. I’m all about $urvival money.
BBF: Can you tell me a bit about the multimedia aspect of this work? What is the relationship between the imagery and the text?
MAW: Yes! As my magical practice has a lot to do with things happening in my real life as well I like to document it and integrate that directly into Sea-Witch. The first sentence of Sea-Witch talks about how this book is not about my body, but you will notice that a TON of the photos are photos of my body, often naked. This is because my body is a very strong tool I have, but it is not the endpoint. It is part of a means to an end. Anyway, a lot of my magical practice has to do with my body, including the tattooing and the sex and the hormones and the sacraments so adding visual elements has been a way to incorporate more magic into the text than there would have been otherwise. It allows me to more closely turn the act of creation into a ritual.
The relationship between the imagery and the text is that they are all about the same thing. The mythology illuminates the system we must fight and the magic we must use to fight it. The images are part of and about the magic.
BBF: Sea-Witch also seems to be constantly in progress both online and with Volume 1 coming out in January. I wonder about the significance of its ongoing status? Does it have an ending? Should it?
MAW: SEA-WITCH FOREVER.
BBF: I am also curious about Sea-Witch as both a place and a body in which to inhabit. You write, “5. The whole time I was living in Sea-Witch I kept a stone in my pocket wrapped in old paper I tore from a book & held together with hair ties. Every night I would wash it in Sea-Witch’s hair & feed it bits of mushroom & herbs, whatever I had around. When I spoke to it I felt listened to. Before I left Sea-Witch I gave this rock to Sea-Witch as a present, & she ate it, saying I will keep it safe here. I wrote her a thank you note & signed it with all my names. I kissed Sea-Witch & felt the rock moving inside. When they come for us, we will climb the trees.” Can you speak to this relationship between place and body?
MAW: My relationship with my body is sort of like it’s this old apartment I moved into. I’m like dealing with the quirks and cussing at it a lot but also loving things about it and definitely doing a LOT of decorating and trying to make myself feel at home in it. I am also a person who is ~plural~ or multiple. Some people refer to this as dissociative identity disorder or multiple personalities. So in that sense there are literally a lot of people living in my (our) body. Body IS place in my experience, in a fairly literal sense. It is a place I am kind of agoraphobic about. Maybe someday I’ll finally leave but for now I’m living here full-time along with some other folks, so we’re collaborating making this thing about our experience. I tend to not really focus on the ~plural~ aspect of myself or incorporate it into my usual sentence structure because I’m already worried about being too confusing for most people most of the time.
But in addition to that, Sea-Witch as a place is a place of shelter from the storm. It is a place for the marginalized to go that exists in resistance to the world of harm and pain around it. I think such a place could only also be a friend and a lover and a family to you. It could only also be a personhood and a body.
BBF: I must say, I am so taken by this work and excited to continue on its journey. I read it as both an origin story and an apocalyptic one…holding many things all at once, what is it that Sea-Witch holds for you? What do you hope for your readers to find in its multitudes?
MAW: I hope my readers find solace in Sea-Witch because that is what she is built for. She is here to exist as a place of shelter. I also hope those in power feel threatened by her. I also hope they get hit in the head by a copy of the book and never wake up again.
BBF: Any final thoughts or questions you wish I had asked but didn’t?
MAW: The quotes! You didn’t ask about the quotes I have before each section of the book. These quotes are from people who have been feeding me, spiritually, creatively, politically. Some of them are friends of mine, some of them are more famous artists of some kind. But collecting these has been a HUGE part of the experience of this project for me. I love it so much. Something about being able to not just create, but also to curate alongside that feels necessary to this project, though I can’t say I entirely understand why yet.
In this darkness, I have been re-imagining what it means to live as a black being. Blood has become the landscape as the days shorten to mourn or fall. Still, I continue to wake up and read any disruption that wills my body to put forth love.
I fell face first into an interview with co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Movement, Patrice Cullors, especially when she declared:
“And I think the last thing I’ll say is Black Lives Matter is a re-humanizing project. We’ve lived in a place that has literally allowed for us to believe and center only black death. We’ve forgotten how to imagine black life. Literally whole human beings have been rendered to die prematurely, rendered to be sick, and we’ve allowed for that. Our imagination has only allowed for us to understand black people as a dying people. We have to change that. That’s our collective imagination, someone imagined handcuffs, someone imagined guns, someone imagined a jail cell. Well, how do we imagine something different that actually centers black people that sees them in the future. Let’s imagine something different.”
As a human being fighting to wake up every day — it’s been essential to also eat by reading love in this midst of white anger and violence.
However, I work in academia — an institution that sways from knowledge to epiphany to suffering. How do I remain fixed to advocate for students and work with other allies/accomplishes in an incredibly precarious environment? How do I engage these questions as an administrator and writer?
I have been reading quite a bit on researchers examining issues of diversity work like Sara Ahmed and bell hooks but as always — poetry remains.
Especially now, it’s imperative that in the midst of protest, I must re-imagine the definition of origin and death — particularly as it relates to inheritance and race. But how can the academy integrate Patrice Cullors’ principles of creativity and blackness? How are white educators considering their accountability in the classroom — how can they foster an environment where students can begin re-imagining?
I reread recently Flux, “a collection exploring the natural world and the self in it — from the Sonoran Desert of the Southwest to the far north of Iceland.” I found kin in such work that I considered with American racial lore. Although I knew about Hogue’s poetic work I was not familiar with her scholarly and intersectional work in the classroom until I actually read her bio from Flux.
I became particularly invested and curious in her advocacy work within the academy. How is she processing language and agency? What is her mediating work?
Given her accolades and investment I took a chance, reached out — curious on her thoughts on negotiating diversity work in the classroom, with privilege and poetry on her back.
Kimberly Williams: Can you describe your mediation and diversity work? What are the practices? How did you get involved in the work?
Cynthia Hogue: I’d like to respond by sharing a thread of the story of my involvement with diversity work. I have over the years written a good deal about race, but for a long time, I didn’t realize it. The realization had a lot to do with why I got involved in diversity work and sought out training in mediation. In 1995, a professor in the Communication Department at Tulane University, Dr. Marcia Houston, whom I’d consulted about mediating student conflict, very generously shared with me some guidelines for classroom discussion of diversity issues, which I’ve followed all these years.
The first is: Assume people always endeavor to do the best they can.
Since that time, I have very occasionally been asked to facilitate workshops on issues of diversity in the college classroom.
At one particular workshop, I shared the Houston guideline #1 with participants, as well as #2: Assume everyone at the table is well-intentioned and here to learn (even though, as I recall, many of the white faculty were there mandatorily, and were initially very resentful of that fact).
“As editors, we wanted to intervene in received racial and gendered accounts of the history of experimental poetry, and enlarge the definition of “innovative” in order to include women poets not usually included in that category.”
To illustrate my point that we were all in this together, I shared a poem of mine that dated from 1985. I’d been living in a homogeneous country, Iceland, into which I (as a Scandinavian American) had assimilated. The poem retold a well-known folktale in the North Atlantic of a selkie, a shapeshifter in the form of a seal who becomes a woman in order to marry the sailor she has saved from drowning. As in the folktale, my poem had her stepping out of her racially unmarked but implicitly black seal skin to reveal that she is (unconsciously) racially marked: both human and white inside. I recounted my own process of developing the capacity to see that the poem was racially marked, in order to illustrate the point that this process is ongoing. It was only in preparing for the workshop a decade after I wrote the poem that I had looked at the poem critically, happening upon the occasion to see it so unexpectedly that I was astonished into insight.
Some part of my astonishment was located in the fact that, following Iceland, I lived in two very multicultural American cities (Tucson and New Orleans). I had been learning many things about the real challenges of being a truly diverse and integrated country, and for me as a writer, to write a more racially-aware poetry. To discover that I was oblivious to the obvious was disheartening, and among the things included for me in what Alice Fulton calls an “inconvenient knowledge,” with which poetry can confront us.
In Pennsylvania, where I moved in 1995, I had the chance to train with the Mennonites, who are world experts in what is now called “conflict transformation.” It was with the Mennonites that I received the training as a mediator that I’ve drawn on in my work as teacher, poet, and arts administrator. The main tenet of the practice of conflict transformation as the Mennonites teach it can be distilled into a simple principle: the practitioner develops her skills in attentive listening. That principle is the key to transforming conflict into communication. When someone else feels heard, deeply and wholeheartedly, the physiology of the conflicting parties shifts and the possibility of finding common ground emerges. After that training, I began very organically to develop approaches to writing and teaching that included some of the Mennonites’ training.
CH: I haven’t ever put it this way to myself, but thanks to your question, perhaps I can say that the way I’ve approached the editing work I’ve done, my concern to bring voices into juxtaposition and dialogue that have not previously been associated, exemplifies my training in mediation and diversity issues. The co-edited (with Elisabeth Frost) Innovative Women Poets: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry and Interviews and the earlier co-edited (with Laura Hinton) anthology, We Who Love to Be Astonished: Experimental Women’s Writing and Performance Poetics both chart a course among the various schools of poetry that does not fall on one side or another, but rather is more multicultural and representative of a broader range of aesthetics than I’d previously addressed in my critical work. To give a brief example, I had interviewed the experimental poet, Harryette Mullen, who mentioned the major African American performance poet Jayne Cortez, and I was horrified to admit I had never heard of her at that time. Well, my co-editors and I took pains to ensure that Cortez was included in both anthologies. As editors, we wanted to intervene in received racial and gendered accounts of the history of experimental poetry, and enlarge the definition of “innovative” in order to include women poets not usually included in that category.
“I wanted to individualize evacuees from New Orleans who did not have a voice — not to “give” them voice, as I’ve put it elsewhere, but to create a forum in which their voices might be audible, particularized, and dignified by the poetic measures that I came to hear as I worked on transcribing the interviews.”
CH: The short answer to your last question is yes. I wanted to help counter the unconscious stereotypes of those stranded in New Orleans, as purveyed uncritically by many journalists. In the sense that I learned so much about race relations in this country from living in New Orleans, a truly multicultural (if troubled) city for four years, I really wanted to contribute something to the artistic responses. Creating the pieces in the book was an inductive process of exploration and discovery. Each poem arose from the apparently simple act of sustained listening to someone being interviewed about what they had gone through, after which I then transcribed the spoken words, and transformed them into what I called “interview-poems.” I used only the words of the evacuees (with their permission), and worked carefully with each one to ensure that everything in the poem was accurate to their experience. I wanted to individualize evacuees from New Orleans who did not have a voice — not to “give” them voice, as I’ve put it elsewhere, but to create a forum in which their voices might be audible, particularized, and dignified by the poetic measures that I came to hear as I worked on transcribing the interviews.
By the same token, I invited the photographer Rebecca Ross to join my project, not to “illustrate” my poems (as in the “words = visual image” equation), but analogously to intervene in the stereotyping of diverse subjects, including African American residents of New Orleans, both in the news and in the white American Imaginary. The more presence with which the speaking subject can be conveyed, the more the sense of the person speaking — with all their human hesitance, heartbreak, grit, courage, and insight — can be apprehended. When I conducted the interviews, I became aware that I was consciously practicing “attentive listening,” and I’d like to add at this point a few words about this practice: it is an ancient form of offering respect by inviting another to share his or her deepest feelings, his or her story. I was very aware that each of the interviewees had given me a great gift, in telling me their story, also in opening up in all their vulnerability and dignity to the photographer, in order that their portraits and stories be available to others — to inform, perhaps to instruct, and hopefully, to enlarge the reader’s world and her capacity for compassion.
CH: In Scheming Women (drawing on poststructuralist theory), I explored how quite privileged white women poets dismantled and unsettled such unified subject positions. I went on to examine with my students how writers dismantle received constructions of race, gender, class and sexuality, and like many feminist educators, I began to develop pedagogical positions that deconstructed classroom hierarchies. That position really is very much like the mediator, the teacher who listens carefully but cedes the space to students, sometimes moving into the center to set guidelines of practice, sometimes taking a stance of authority if necessary, but often refraining from being “the one who knows.” In fact, the approach doesn’t reconstitute the “oppressors’ language,” but models an alternative to positions of mastery. But it’s an inductive process, and I don’t claim to have taught intersectionality as a theory per se.
As a postscript on poetic praxis, I’ll add that when I came to write a poem like “Ars Cora” (in Or Consequence), the kernel of which is a story of the last slave to have access to the antebellum courts in Louisiana to sue for manumission, I was very aware of the issues of (narrative) “mastery” and “the oppressor’s language” — so aware, in fact, that I researched the history and thought about the story for a decade before I could sit down and write it. The poem was not — and I felt could not be — narrative or linear, and I as the narrating subject hovered at the edge of Cora’s place, which was empty, silent. The fragmented, collaged form of that poem was profoundly linked to the question of who occupies the position of speaking subject at the center of the poem. In “Ars Cora,” Cora’s absent voice is at the center of this racially-marked history, both erased and e/raced.
CH: I really appreciate this question, as I hadn’t read Rich’s essay, and I’m happy to have had the occasion to do so. It reminds me of what a great and moral and necessary voice and inspiring vision she had. I was recently reading in Brenda Hillman’s Practical Water a line that asks a question I think dovetails with Rich’s essay: “What does it mean to live a moral life”? The poem, of course, doesn’t answer that, but it makes us think about what it’s asking. I was moved by how directly the question is posed, how it confronted me as a reader, reached directly into my life, and touched me. As well, it reminded me that poetry can very directly and movingly address large philosophical and ethical issues, as Rich notes that Shelley intended.
“I began to realize this past year that such students are bringing a revolution-in-the-making into the educational system, which in turn is helping them learn how to cross borders guarded by class and privilege.”
Perhaps it is not a coincidence that Hillman’s book also references Shelley as revolutionary thinker, and contains a number of poems about the direct actions on the part of the women’s anti-war organization: CodePink, for example, attending Congressional hearings on post-9/11 government surveillance and the Iraq war as a way “to resist official versions that are devastating the earth & its creatures.” The call Rich issues for poetry in these turbulent times is in one way answered by what Hillman describes as poetic “activism,” like writing reportorial poems, which work to undeaden the language of Congressional hearings, but also to keep a poetic record of what usually doesn’t reach the public sphere. Long after the hearings are history, the poem will be read and its response affect future readers. Such engaged poets — now more than ever, I would say — bring the poem to the public so that its careful words touch the world with care.
To think about poetry/ poetries today is to acknowledge both that the art form has a limited sociocultural reach in its day, but the chronological potential to reach into the future. It is also to acknowledge that the world over, poetry abides precisely because it houses voices and words that matter, and visions that have not been subjected or mastered by time-bound, political issues.
One of the points the Mennonites make about conflict is that it carries the potential of producing change. It transforms us, changes minds and views, if we don’t shut down from defensiveness and fear of the angry other. When people shut down from fear, old inherited hatreds, reactive thinking, conflict can remain irresolvable (there are both historical and recent examples that come to mind). Poets don’t shut us down, however, but open us up, because they must remain open. That seems to me to be part of the nature of being a poet. They have the capacity to open us up as well as make us see otherwise invisible forces. As Rich writes, “Poetry has the capacity to remind us of something we are forbidden to see.” Poems may present us with what we don’t want to see — the “inconvenient knowledge” of which Fulton writes — but must, in order to live moral lives. We should change, or act, or break the silence, or simply stop and be in this very world fully present and engaged and compassionate. Can we live with ourselves if we don’t?
I’m thankful for Rich’s defense of poetry. Daily, as a teaching poet at a large public university, I work with a range of students who often come to the poetry classroom from their engaged involvement in the public sphere. There, poetry is a verbal, oral, and performative art that reaches people beyond the university, helping to create a sense of community, a place that “hears” them and represents their experience. The college creative writing classroom becomes, then, a part of this extended community, a part even of the kind of “revolutionary-mindedness” for which Rich honored Shelley. Although these young poets, especially in Arizona from the communities of color, are already of the people, they have, in my observation, rarely come from privileged backgrounds. They are pragmatic and resilient, and they carry their protest of the status quo into the classroom. I began to realize this past year that such students are bringing a revolution-in-the-making into the educational system, which in turn is helping them learn how to cross borders guarded by class and privilege. In that, as their teacher and ally, it was my privilege to serve for a time to facilitate such crossings. This is also what I have been thinking about in “today’s climate”: that we are in a time of climate change.
“So, for those writers enjoying some kind of privilege the first challenge is to become aware of it, so one can act from awareness and not blindness, and make conscious choices.”
KW: What advice can you give to poets who would like to get into similar work?
CH: With the caveat that my own efforts have been very modest indeed, I’ll share some of the resources I found meaningful and helpful over the years. At the time that I first sought training, in both Tucson and New Orleans, there were community organizations setting up workshops and seminars, but I was at the time about to move, so the organizers didn’t accept me into their programs, because I would not be around in turn to give back to their communities. Anyone interested in training in this work, though, might look for it first locally. Sometimes religious groups, or as with Dr. Houston’s work, activist groups working with diverse communities and university peace studies programs develop this training for people interested in exploring this direction of activism. Once I discovered that once a year, the Mennonites offer conflict transformation training to those outside their faith, I was able at last to do this work! One goes initially for a week’s intensive and receives 40 hours of mediation training and practice along the way. For anyone seeking to explore the role of mediator (and/or the possibilities of peace-making), understanding ways that conflict can be transformed — or not, and learning how to recognize the difference — is a good place to start.
Later, I sought further training with another important group specializing in what they call “nonviolent communication,” following the thinking of Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, who built on notions of conflict resolution to expand ways of responding to conflicts on the macro — race relations, the Middle East — and micro-levels. That was superb and difficult work, beginning with attentive interpersonal practice, which could later be used to bring compassion and empathy to larger arenas. Training is available in intensives all over this country and actually, in many places in the world; the center is in New Mexico.
None of this work is obviously poetic, but it seems to me that poets from all perspectives are always thinking through how and why poetry matters, as Rich’s essay exemplifies, and when one thinks about the craft of poetry, how every word carries the weight of the careful attention the poet brought to its use, to its ability to touch the wor(l)d, the connections between the dynamics of mediation and the craft of poetry emerge.
KW: How can writers who share spaces of privilege support other writers from disenfranchised groups? This could mean in the classroom, editorial, or publishing field, etc.
CH: There’s definitely a need for more thoughtful leadership in this area! I want to speak just briefly and for the most part theoretically, but if you look around, there really are many examples — not of privilege abused, for that is an old norm, but of privilege unsettled and reconfigured or transformed. Because of recent events and the consciousness that all the violence has brought about, there are many more people stepping up to enact change:
The first challenge with privilege is that if one enjoys it, one has very little motivation (other than the moral and ethical) for sharing it, or even for being aware of it. Second Wave feminists observed that very few men realized the privilege they enjoyed because they are men. The same can be said for whiteness, class, and heterosexuality. So, for those writers enjoying some kind of privilege the first challenge is to become aware of it, so one can act from awareness and not blindness, and make conscious choices.
The second challenge of privilege is not incidentally to re-install the structures of privilege. For example, there are ways to give that, as the French feminists theorized, carry strings with the gifts, which in essence leaves the hierarchy between donor and recipient in place. Then, there is the “gift that gives,” as Hélène Cixous put it, free and clear of all debt to the donor. Lewis Hyde has written eloquently of this concept in art in The Gift as well. Emily Dickinson called such gesture “munificence” (from the Latin for gift). It takes vigilance to unsettle one’s own privilege in order to make a space for others, and you have to choose it consciously.
The third challenge is finding ways really to share the power that privilege confers, to pass it forward instead of hoarding it for one’s own, and to ensure that the sharing is accompanied by awareness-raising.
The fourth challenge is that deep and attentive acknowledgment of the other, when one detaches from one’s own privileged position. Poetry itself exemplifies this structure (the “face to face encounter,” of full presence and parity, as Susan Stewart writes). Teaching as an avocation might be said to model this as well. Certainly, the work that teachers of poetry do has the potential to change people’s minds and lives.
It’s really quite spiritual as well as political work. But — you may never have the satisfaction of seeing the results. That’s the fifth challenge. As Alicia Ostriker put it some time ago, the struggle may not be resolved in any individual’s life time, but nor are we ethically free to abandon it.
Cynthia Hogue has published thirteen books, including eight collections of poetry. She was awarded two NEA Fellowships, the H.D. Fellowship at the Beinecke Library at Yale University, a MacDowell Colony residency, and the Witter Bynner Translation Fellowship at the Santa Fe Art Institute. Hogue served as the Distinguished Visiting Writer at Cornell University in the Spring of 2014.
As the award established in her legacy at the University of Alabama, where she chaired the Department of Communication, stated, “Dr. Houston merged her scholarship with on-the-ground service to improve the ways that the communication studies discipline has re/considered un(der)represented groups and to motivate empowering ways that our local, regional, national, and global communities have attended to issues of diversity.” I direct anyone interested to her important work.
 There were eight in all, designed to create an environment of mutual respect and communal endeavor in diverse classes addressing diversity issues, from which I distilled five used in any kind of discussion setting.
 I have unfortunately discovered that Dr. Rosenberg recently passed away, but his center — and the global work it does — is continued by those he trained. See his Center’s website for more information: https://www.cnvc.org/.
 Alicia Ostriker, “Beyond Confession: The Poetics of Postmodern Witness,” APR 30.2 (March/April 2001): 35–39.
To continue my musings on community, how and by whom it’s built, this post features an interview with Rachel Rose, Vancouver Poet Laureate l(2014–2017). According to the City website, “The Poet Laureate is an honorary position,” with a flexible term of two to three years, established by Vancouver City Council in December 2006 “to honour and celebrate the contribution of literature and poetry to life in Vancouver.” The position is funded by a generous endowment established by philanthropist, professor, businessman, and philosopher, Dr. Yosef Wosk, OBC. The Poet Laureate Program is a partnership of the City of Vancouver, Vancouver Public Library, and The Vancouver Writers Fest.
Rachel Rose has tough acts to follow. Each of the previous poets laureate created a poetic legacy project. George McWhirter (2009–2011) edited the anthology Verse Map of Vancouver (Anvil Press, 2009), which included ~100 poets who spatialized Vancouver’s verse geography. Brad Cran (2009–2011) organized the V125 poetry conference (October 2011), a gathering of 100 poets who published their first book after 1990. Evelyn Lau (2011–2014) met with aspiring poets in the community through a series of poet-in-residence consultations, bringing poetry into public spaces and discourse.
Rachel Rose and I met virtually to talk about her Poet Laureateship, its influences, inspiration, and challenges.
Jami Macarty: Hi Rachel. Thanks very much for being here. Let’s dive into our conversation about Vancouver’s Poet Laureate. From the website for the Poet Laureate of the City of Vancouver: “The importance of literature and literacy in Vancouver’s cultural landscape was highlighted when City Council established the Poet Laureate Program in December 2006.” Which aspects of literacy and literature and their intersections most draw your attention?
Rachel Rose: Literature and poetry invite us to use our imaginations to develop empathy, to understand and care about lives that are different from our own. Literature offers the potential for political, emotional, cultural, and spiritual engagement. For me personally, being a reader allows me access to the inner lives and outer circumstances of other people that I’d never be able to access in any other way. It is one of the best parts of being human.
“I wanted a project that would promote connection and the possibility of sustenance in our divided city. Simply, I needed a project that would nourish me and would offer nourishment.”
JM: Can you describe the selection process for Poet Laureate (PL)? What did you have to do to be considered? What criteria did you fulfill?
RR: First, I am grateful to Yosef Wosk for his leadership and vision, in this and in so many other realms — as a writer, scholar, and founder of Simon Fraser University’s Philosophers’ Café, among other leadership roles.
Any established poet with deep roots in this city can apply; individuals can be nominated by others as well. There will be a public call for the fifth Poet Laureate of Vancouver in late 2016. The selection is made by a committee of staff from the City, the Vancouver Public Library, and The Vancouver Writers Fest.
JM: What does it mean to you to be Vancouver’s fourth Poet Laureate?
RR: It was a surprise in some ways to be selected. I hesitated to apply, actually, because I feared it would mean the end of the solitude I find so necessary for my work, and because I thought others were more qualified for the position. But when I did put forth my application, I resolved that I would only propose a project that, if successful, would be a departure from anything I had done before and would allow me to immerse myself in new communities. I wanted a project that would promote connection and the possibility of sustenance in our divided city. Simply, I needed a project that would nourish me and would offer nourishment.
Some time before I submitted my application, I read some polls by Vancouver Foundation that showed the people of Vancouver believe alienation and disconnection are our most pressing social issues — not housing, not economics — but fractured communities, a sense of not belonging. That stayed with me.
We are a city of diverse cultures, belief systems, and economic backgrounds. There are many subjects and causes worthy of the attention of a Poet Laureate, though few that I could imagine would engage us all, poet or not. Food seemed like the right choice on so many levels. All of us break bread, or cook beans, or fry noodles. All of us carry memories of those foods that taste like home, whether it is the activist challenging the cruelties of conventional farming, the exile remembering the waft of spices on lost streets, or the child writing about the sockeye salmon she buys at Granville Island. Poetry inspired by food invites poets to write provocative work about the environment, class, immigration, and occupation, but it also allows us to celebrate our city’s strengths in a way that brings us together. To sit down and eat together, to write about food memories, about feast days, and to share them in public, is an act of engagement. And food, as the most basic of necessities, is essential for our survival. It contains myriad possibilities in terms of engagement. As Mvskoke poet Joy Harjo writes in her poem Perhaps the World Ends Here, “The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.”
I envision collaborative acts of poetry and feasting taking part throughout the city, as poets go forth to celebrate in verse what chefs celebrate in food. I envision new poems and essays being written in homage to those who feed and sustain us.
JM: Can you say more about why you were surprised to be selected?
RR: I am a bit of an outsider in the poetry scene, both through temperament and necessity — having three kids and not being able to hang out at the cool literary events when I’m still getting up at six the next morning, or when I need to be at home cleaning out lunch kits and helping with homework.
Also, there are other poets who have given deeply to the community for far longer than I have, who seemed natural choices. But here I am!
JM: How’s it going as you juggle the PL post’s demands, along side those of your art-making and family life? Can you talk about particular challenges of the PL post?
RR: It’s been a gift and a challenge, honestly. I’m inspired because I get to meet artists in other disciplines that I wouldn’t have met. I get to read with them at City Hall, and hear them perform. That’s wonderful. But I have to say no to some invitations when I would much prefer to say yes. I come up against my own limitations more than I would like.
This came up when choosing Poetry Ambassadors. There are of course the many fine and talented and generous poets I did not invite — or some I did who were too busy to take it on. There is always the anxiety of invitation, of making something collective, of choosing at all to engage, and then hoping others rise to the invitation. I made my decisions based on three factors: a dedication to poetry, a perceptible kindness, and a willingness to connect with others. And I suppose another factor was inviting those whose poetry communities, while having some overlap with my own, were not my own — I want our reach to be broad, and our areas of expertise to be myriad.
You ask about balancing the demands of poetry and writing and the Laureateship. I don’t think of balance so much as triage. I do what most demands my attention at the moment, what cannot wait. What event is coming up, what deadline looms? I have three kids in three different public schools, and each school has scheduled their meet-the-teacher night for the same night, a night I’ll be away for a writing project. The impossibility of it all is often overwhelming — even the small things, like attending a launch. I either hire a babysitter and pay $40 to get out the door, or my wife does it after a long day at work, or I don’t go, and wonder how to convey my support and create community even though I am absent when I long to be present. We still get school notices delivered the day before requesting home-baked cakes for cake-walks as school fundraisers — and what does that presume about women and work? And how is it that dozens and dozens of cakes appear on those tables (none of which are baked by me)?
“I aim for the good enough community. I think the idea of community is fraught for many of us, just like the notion of family can be. And the literary community can be especially challenging, in part because writers bind their identities to their writing, and then must compete against each other for scarce resources.”
JM: Can you trace the genesis of the idea to use poetry and food to “promote connection in our divided city”?
RR: Many factors influenced the birth of this preoccupation with food and sustenance. My mother was a doctor in rural areas in Canada and the U.S., and I accompanied her as she attended to patients from the time I was a baby. She treated a number of people in the U.S. who could not pay for medical care. I remember patients in the country giving her a bucket of honey or a young calf (which I fed, watered, and later ate) to pay for the medical care they’d received.
My stepfather was Executive Director of an organization in Washington State called Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland. This organization works with small farmers to ensure that they are able to preserve their way of life, to protect wildlife habitat, and to work with other farm to table organizations such as the Seattle Culinary Academy (at Seattle Central College) to connect urban chefs with the farmers who grow their food.
These were formative experiences about the value of food and community. More recently were my years working with refugee families from Burma through Immigrant Service Society of BC. My kids and I volunteered to help families arriving from refugee camps in Thailand adjust to a new life in B.C. We spent a lot of time in Surrey, where a number of families were resettled in a specific housing project. It was an experience that taught me a great deal about resilience and community. Every time we went, whether we were able to do something practical like drive people to the hospital, or help with employment paperwork, or even if we were just hanging out and visiting, we were fed. As soon as we walked in the door, someone started cooking for us — nearly every time, garlic and ginger fried in oil were sizzling in a pan within minutes of our arrival. There were so many differences in language and understanding, and certainly there were frustrations, but every time we made that long drive to Surrey we were welcomed to the table. I had stumbled upon an opportunity for all of us to be nourished by our connection.
So these are some of the seeds of activism around food and community that perhaps germinated only when I applied for this position.
JM: What are the motivating factors/ what thinking or ideas are behind your decision to have Poetry Ambassadors? How did you select the ambassadors?
RR: The decision to have the position be a collective one felt right to me. I really wanted to reach beyond the usual poetry circles, and I knew I couldn’t do it alone. Even more than that, I wanted to reach beyond my own circle, and I also couldn’t do that alone.
As far as I know, I am the only Poet Laureate to create positions for Poetry Ambassadors. We are a loose collective of a dozen people, each doing what they feel called to do as schedules and interests permit. In any case, I wanted to share the spotlight for two reasons. The first is, I am not quite comfortable in the spotlight, and prefer to be a bit more in shadow — but I am lucky enough to know poets who thrive on stage. The second is to share the wealth. I knew that there would be many opportunities and possibilities that would come with this position, and I thought how lovely it would be to invite others to enjoy those opportunities to teach and give readings.
Did I say two reasons? Let me add a third: I wanted to create at least some of the kind of community for which I hungered in the very act of being Vancouver’s Poet Laureate.
There are so many people who have really put poetry and community at the center of their lives, who are doing interesting work politically, who are innovators and skilled connectors. I chose people who weren’t necessarily the biggest or best-known poets (though several have major profiles) but who were people I had seen in action in the community, whom I believed would do the good, hard work of outreach.
JM: What’s your definition of community? What attributes does a healthy, “good” community have? What are the links between poetry/writing and community?
RR: I aim for the good enough community. I think the idea of community is fraught for many of us, just like the notion of family can be. And the literary community can be especially challenging, in part because writers bind their identities to their writing, and then must compete against each other for scarce resources.
I am not sure there is a writing community, really. We are a fractured, fractious bunch of talented people in overlapping communities that sometimes manage to support each other in tremendously important ways and other times are indifferent or worse.
The good enough literary community recognizes that people have various schools and aesthetic preferences, but others who don’t share those preferences also have much to contribute. A good enough community finds strength in diversity. It is porous enough that outsiders and newcomers can easily find their way in, but solid enough that there is a real sense of camaraderie and support. Generosity and kindness make all the difference. There are many talented writers out there, but talent doesn’t bind people together.
JM: Describe your PL post and its responsibilities — those named and those you assume. What’s your vision?
RR: The named responsibilities are few — to advocate for poetry, to read at the Mayor’s Arts Awards and for City Council every year, to complete my legacy project.
My assumed responsibilities are many, but really I suppose can be distilled to one — to connect with as many people as I can over my term, people for whom poetry has little or no daily importance or function, and to open this door, to issue an invitation to engage with poetry through the theme of food.
“Writing, too, is often isolating, invisible, not particularly valued (especially writing poetry). I wanted, simply, to praise those who nourish, to see it as political and valuable, as an act of creating ties, an act of love.”
JM: Can you offer some examples of connections made and/or projects underway?
JM: What I appreciate about the projects mentioned above is their example of community — each is a site of new partnerships and collaborations forming with common intentions to educate, to inspire, to celebrate poetry and food. That’s nourishing!
What’s your notion of “nourish/ing”? What’s your thinking behind that notion? Can you say more about why and it what ways is it important to you?
RR: Nourishing is often an invisible act, a (usually) female act of caregiving. I have fed my family of five countless meals over the years. These meals are bought, prepared, consumed, and then disappear. To provide good nourishment requires resources, whether we speak of a family or a community; it is honourable but sometimes fraught work.
Writing, too, is often isolating, invisible, not particularly valued (especially writing poetry). I wanted, simply, to praise those who nourish, to see it as political and valuable, as an act of creating ties, an act of love. Those who do the feeding, the caregiving, the domestic labour, are the backbone of the economy in important ways. When, in 1975, 90% of women in Iceland went on strike from their domestic duties, the country ground to a complete halt. That has never happened here. I wish it would.
“I am pleased to say that Anvil Press has just committed to publishing my legacy project poetry anthology, Sustenance … We will invite those public collaborations between poets and chefs, urban farmers, food bank workers, dumpling makers, beekeepers, and other locals engaged in nourishing our citizens.”
JM: Let’s turn our attention to a different notion of nourishing — your legacy project. Your PL message promises: “a book profiling the best of these collaborations.” How will these collaborations be represented or “culminate” in a book? What can you say about the book project, the publisher, the vision?
RR: I am pleased to say that Anvil Press has just committed to publishing my legacy project poetry anthology, Sustenance. This anthology will be comprised of selections chosen by me and each of the Poetry Ambassadors. We will invite those public collaborations between poets and chefs, urban farmers, food bank workers, dumpling makers, beekeepers, and other locals engaged in nourishing our citizens.
The anthology will be deeply influenced by the aesthetics of each of the Poetry Ambassadors, as well as myself. Sustenance brings to the table some of Canada’s best contemporary writers on the topic of food. Sustenance will be a literary anthology of the highest calibre, written by 150 of the finest poets and writers from Vancouver, B.C. and beyond (Canada, North America, and International) to commemorate Canada’s 150th anniversary. Sustenance will celebrate all that is unique about Vancouver’s literary and culinary scene. Each of these short pieces will shock, comfort, challenge, and illuminate our city’s living history, seen through the lens of food — whether it is exile, hunger, food scarcity, bulimia, urban beekeeping, community gardening, foraging, feeding a baby, or the personal story of a celebrity chef.
Sustenance is also an urgent community response to the needs of individuals in our city. Profits from this book will provide both a symbolic and practical welcome to the refugees who will be arriving in B.C. over the coming months, and to low-income families in our astronomically expensive city. Writers will be donating their honoraria to the Farmers Market Nutrition Coupon Program.
Every $15.00 in sales profit — that is, every book sold — will provide a low-income or refugee family with fresh, locally grown produce for a week through these vouchers, and at the same time will support B.C. farmers, fishers, beekeepers, and gardeners. This gesture will be an offering to those who need support, and will also be a gesture of support to those farmers whose life work is to nourish us.
JM: Wow! This project elates my community-advocate’s heart. I’m honored to be a part of a project of such substance. All the people involved — you, me, and the other writers/contributors, the refugee/low-income families, the farmers, etc. — at all levels will be nourished by the project. That’s the truest expression of community. We’ve talked about how through the PL post you’ve served others. What about you? What have you learned so far/ how has your thinking been influenced as a result of your time as PL? How has the PL post influenced your writing?
RR: I chose food as my PL focus in part because I wanted something that could be joyful, that could be centred around eating together. As I learn more from activists and experts about food sustainability, I see that our very human, primary need for sustenance has been profoundly damaged by corporate greed — our oceans are overfished, and there is very little global stewardship of the oceans. On land, our farms are run like factories, with animal products and by-products, with peaches soaked in pesticides to the point where children are not supposed to eat more than one a day. It hurts.
Because of the work I am doing as Poet Laureate, I got my first backyard beehive. The first year, a global virus killed off all the bees. It is very different to read about bees being threatened and to see a dead and empty hive that recently had throbbed with sweet life.
The hive is back, and this year has been such a strong year that I even got to see a swarm of bees in the backyard cherry trees. All this has lead to poems about bees, about the work of the hive. Everything is connected. Without this work, I wouldn’t have the sting — or the honey.
JM: Thank you for being here in this conversation with me, Rachel.
RR: Thank you, Jami, for inviting me to converse, and for your ongoing and thoughtful work to create a stronger literary community in Vancouver.
TO: Vincent Wong, fine art, commercial, and wedding photographer, Third Beach drummer, and all around terrific human being for his wonderful image of Vancouver being constructed.
TO: Vancouver Park Board for once again showing us how to build community. This time, it’s their creative inquiry Words for Birds, bringing together language arts with the natural sciences as they search for an official City Bird with the help of its people.
TO: Word Vancouver for so generously bringing us — the City’s writers and readers and listeners — together at the end of September (21–28) for a celebration of literacy — accessible and free to all.
The Festival’s a wonderful example of community.
That’s all for now, dear readers. Look for the next P & H blog in two months.
In the meantime, write to me, leave a comment. Tell me what you want more of and less of in this blog — and in your community — and what’s just right. It’s always good to know what’s just right.
Led by poet Claudia F. Savage, a quarterly interview series
The second of the series, a conversation with Kaveh Akbar.
Iranian-American poet Kaveh Akbar’s work admits everything — emotional difficulty, bodily awkwardness, and historical hesitancy. “Being alive/ is so confusing, most people have to/ whisper around it…” he says in “Feet First.” But, although his poetry tackles difficult subject matter — murdered Iranian women, addiction, and exile — every poem is a method of prayer. Language, for Akbar, is a net for wonder. In his poem, “I Was Already An American Last Week When A Leaf Fell” he says:
Once, drunk and amphetamined, I stayed up
all night licking a friend’s knives. In the morning
my tongue was shredded to ribbons, delicate as wet
newsprint. Almost anything can become kindling
if the fire’s big enough…
Kaveh Akbar wrestles with the fear of being consumed and the reward of approaching the fire anyway.
Claudia F. Savage: Reading your work, I kept thinking about Paul Celan, a favorite of mine. Your work has the same kind of persistence. Celan’s line (as translated by Michael Hamburger): “I hear that they call life/ our only refuge” and yours (from “Besides, Little Goat, You Can’t Just Go Asking for Mercy”):
I like it fine, this daily struggle
to not die…
There is earned hope here. Can you speak to that?
Kaveh Akbar: Yes! I think about Celan all the time. The idea of a German Jewish poet whose parents were executed in Nazi camps, who survived a labor camp himself, still writing his poems in German, still translating Shakespeare in a Nazi ghetto, is endlessly powerful to me. He wrote: “There is nothing in the world for which a poet will give up writing, not even when he is a Jew and the language of his poems is German.” My first language was Farsi and I no longer speak or even understand it functionally. There’s a tension at the level of syntax that appears when a person is forced to use the language of their oppressor to articulate their trauma. There’s no escaping that tension, so you find a way to work with it, to weaponize it. Celan was the king of this.
CFS: That’s a gorgeous statement. This also brings me to: “Mostly my days are mine/ to do with as I please: speak in English, speak/ in code, or not speak at all. Whatever I decide, I’ll go/ to sleep with a headache” (from the poem, “I Was Already an American Last Week When a Leaf Fell”). These days there is no way to avoid scrutiny as an Arab-American. Your title is almost enough, but can you speak about this poem and its relation to our current landscape?
KA: I mean, almost half the country is voting for a presidential candidate who explicitly denies my right to citizenship, right? Thirty-whatever-percent of those voters support the bombing of Agrabah, the fictional city from Disney’s Aladdin. You can imagine how they feel about Iran, about Iranians walking around on US soil, eating their cheeseburgers and watching their Netflix, you know? I feel like Schrödinger’s American, both here and not here at any given moment. I think this poem is interested in that. “Whatever I decide, I’ll go / to sleep with a headache.”
CFS: The Iraqi-American poet Dunya Mikhail has said, “Poetry is my homeland and my religion.” Reading through your work I started making a list of the times you invoked God, such as:
Every poem feels like an incantation for forgiveness. What is it about forgiveness?
KA: I love Dunya Mikhail so much and that’s a terrific question. I’m very interested in the idea of forgiveness, but I’m also very very leery of poetry that seeks clemency. Poetry that looks to exonerate the poet. I think the performance of contrition is endlessly fascinating, especially in a spiritual context, and mining the vernacular of that has been useful for me in my work. But I would never want to place the actual burden of forgiveness on a reader, to turn them into some kind of judge to lay my sins before and expect them to render a Not Guilty verdict. That kind of writing inevitably falls flat to me because the author already has a preconceived idea of what the reader’s response should be. I’m skeptical of shoulds in poetry.
KA: I’m glad you like that poem, it’s a favorite of mine, too. The force you bring into a poem with a word like “prophet,” with a word like “prayer” or “beauty,” is powerful because these are ideas that have obsessed every human culture since forever. We’re hard-wired to respond to “beauty,” to “God.” So there’s this potency in those words, this charge. They’re almost radioactive — immensely powerful if harnessed correctly, but if wielded carelessly they can decimate the entire landscape of a poem. I think of the irreverence you point to in my poems as a sort of cold water bath for that reactor, a safety mechanism to keep the radioactivity in check.
KA: Oh man, you’re hitting all my heroes. Yes yes yes, of course, Berryman is a lodestar for me. Nobody sounds like Berryman because Berryman sounded like everyone at once. He sounded like American speech. The Dream Songs, read aloud, sound exactly like spoken American speech. Henry says, “I am a monoglot of English / (American version).” I’m not talking about his words or phrases or themes, I’m talking purely about their sonic effect. If you had a recording of the Dream Songs and played it at a low volume, you’d think you were listening to the ambient chatter of a New York subway station. It’s the most miraculous, staggering thing, from a craft standpoint, that he captured that effect so precisely, that he sustained that precision across as many poems as he did.
I struggled to get around the contemporary grating of his minstrelsy for a long time (I wrote an obnoxiously long essay about this last year that I doubt I’ll ever publish). Kevin Young’s writing on the subject helped a lot: “For Berryman, as for many white rock and roll artists, black dialect (however imaginary), provides a gateway to a wider sense of American language, not a sign of cultural decay but of cultural vitality. The fearlessness through which Berryman breaks through the polite diction of academic poetry into a liberating variety of idioms is a major part of his legacy.” Berryman was after that holistic sonic Americanness, you know? And he was more effective than anyone ever at this. I’d argue he did this more purely than Whitman even, whose vision of Americanness vehemently excluded native people and immigrants and African-Americans.
On an episode of the Poetry Magazine Podcast on which I read my poem “Portrait of the Alcoholic Floating in Space with Severed Umbilicus,” Don Share says, “What I started to feel about Kaveh’s work here is that it resembles a little bit what we would have hoped for from John Berryman if his much to be hoped for recovery had happened.” I think it may be the kindest, most generous sentence ever uttered about my poetry. I am so in awe of Berryman’s craft, so in his debt. I could talk about him for days and days.
CFS: I appreciate that you brought up the notion of fearlessness in craft (and that amazing quote by Share). That also brings me to empathy. I’ve been re-reading Grace Paley recently and was struck by her empathy. Your work is a sea of it. I’m thinking of the breathtaking poem, “Palmyra” for Khaled al-Asaad, the murdered Syrian antiquities scholar who refused to reveal to militants where artifacts had been moved for safekeeping. You say, “I am all tangled/ in the smoke you left…horror leans in and brings/ its own light.” Can you talk about the writing of this poem?
KA: There is so much horror in the world today. There is so much hate and xenophobia and racism, domestically and abroad. It’s easy to become paralyzed with fear or hopelessness or rage or some toxic mixture of all three. I need to be able to control the rate at which I confront and metabolize the horror. My psychic and spiritual conditions are contingent upon a constant orientation toward gratitude, toward wonder, and it becomes impossible to access those things through the constant calculated overwhelm of atrocity and fear levied upon the average American on a day-to-day basis. I don’t watch cable news. I read papers I trust, websites I trust. One day I read about Khaled al-Asaad, his sacrifice, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I was obsessed, I thought about him for months. One day, he came into a poem, totally on his own accord, and then the whole poem became his. It was an instance of me lifting up the curtain on the horror for as long as I was able to bear it. I still don’t particularly enjoy reading that poem, but I’m glad to have written it.
KA: I’ve actually been revisiting Mackey’s Splay Anthem recently after Max Ritvo and I talked about it in our Divedapper conversation. I admire (and envy!) so much Mackey’s sustained attention and steady genius. I don’t know if I’m done writing “Portrait of the Alcoholic…” poems. I’ll say that I’ve been writing like mad of late. I’m enjoying an extremely productive, prolific period relative to my norm. And of those many poems, I haven’t written a new “Portrait of the Alcoholic…” poem in a number of months. So, I wouldn’t necessarily sweep it under the rug if one (or many) came along, but it’s not something I’m consciously seeking to continue either, no.
CFS: Finally, in your poem, “Neither Now Nor Never” you say:
None of my friends want to talk
Praise still feels taboo in some American poetry and, yet, it feels so necessary to present it as a human concern, especially in response to the domestic and international strife we touched on earlier.
KA: To my mind, questions of faith, of resolving god-hunger with modernity, are actually fairly common today in poetry. More so in poetry, I think, than in my actual daily interactions with the people around me, which is maybe what the line you quote is speaking to. I think of Fanny Howe, Kazim Ali, Jericho Brown, Eduardo Corral, Mary Szybist, Jean Valentine, Franz Wright, Li-Young Lee, and Jane Hirshfield as being some of the exemplars of this. In their work I find the conversations that I’m not having as often in my real life. These are the conversations to which I’m offering my voice, my poems.
Kaveh Akbar is the founder and editor of Divedapper. His poems appear recently in Poetry, New England Review, American Poetry Review, Narrative, and elsewhere. A debut full-length collection Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Alice James, 2017), and a chapbook Portrait of the Alcoholic (Sibling Rivalry, 2017) are forthcoming. The recipient of a 2016 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, Kaveh was born in Tehran, Iran, and currently lives and teaches in Florida.
Arab-American poet Claudia F. Savage is one-half of the improvising sound-poetry duo Thick in the Throat, Honey. Her poems and interviews have been, most recently, in Water-Stone Review, Denver Quarterly, Columbia, clade song, FRiGG, Cordella, Late Night Library, Bookslut, and Forklift, Ohio. A 2015 Pushcart and Best Poets 2016 nominee, her first book Bruising Continents (Spuyten Duyvil, 2017) is forthcoming. Her collaboration reductions, with Detroit-visual artist-Jacklyn Brickman, is forthcoming in 2018. She’s garnered awards from Jentel, Ucross, The Atlantic Center for the Arts, and Portland’s Regional Arts and Culture Council. Find her at Claudia F. Savage.